According to researchers at Duke University, there’s a reason why it seems like others are more quick to judge our bad actions than to praise our good ones. When surveying participants’ reactions to different stories, scientists founds that stories with negative results triggered a response from the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls an emotional response. Positive stories, on the other hand, did not trigger the amygdala, and the response was more likely to be logical than emotional. In addition to this, our brains are wired to react more quickly to bad actions because they are more likely to threaten our survival. Similarly, research has shown that people are more likely to attribute good things to luck and bad things to malicious intent. What all of these findings roll up to is a self-preserving instinct to blame others that can complicate, damage, and even end personal and professional relationships.
But just because our brains are wired to be negative, it doesn’t mean you can’t overcome this natural negativity bias. In her book SuperBetter, researcher Jane McGonigal suggests combating compliment complacency by making praise a game. Help your friends and co-workers find their “superhero strengths” by telling them the qualities you admire about them, rather than just superficial comments. If it seems manageable, reward them “points” when they work towards overcoming challenges in their lives or reach milestones. (This might require some social finessing at first, but it’s remarkable how authentic goodwill can overcome awkwardness).
Of course, as has been established, praising people is instinctively easier than sidestepping the urge to blame. As happiness expert Gretchen Rubin expounds upon in her bestselling book The Happiness Project, you can’t change other people but you can change yourself. First, try picking a coping strategy to deal with frustrating behavior. One of the most fundamental strategies is to resist the urge to jump to conclusions about other people’s intentions. Was your coworker trying to sabotage your attempts at getting work done or did he simply not realize he was breaking your concentration on an important task? Then, instead of snapping at your next annoyance, try taking 30 seconds of deep breaths or going for a quick mind-clearing walk. These common minor infractions likely won’t change; what can change is how you react to them. After all, Shakespeare himself, that elegant chronicler of the human mind’s vicissitudes, noted that perception is ultimately behind all of our judgments. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”