Positive & Negative Words

Why the 5-to-1 ratio works

Why do so many of us remember—in detail—all the negative things our spouse did or said, from the beginning of the relationship until today? "You're always late." "This place is a mess." "You never listen to me."

Why can't a big bouquet of roses or a coveted ticket to a favorite sporting event make up for several things that caused hurt feelings? Why do we remember critical remarks more than positive ones? You can blame it on the brain.

Studies conducted by Dr. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago have shown what he calls "the negativity bias" of the brain. Our brains are actually more sensitive and responsive to unpleasant news. That's why personal insults or criticism hit us harder and stay with us longer. It's why negative ads are more effective than positive ones—political or otherwise.

It's a numbers game

Not only do we have a built-in partiality toward negative information, but negatives increase disproportionately over positives. It's not a one-to-one ratio. In other words, one positive cannot offset one negative. When you tell your husband, "Thanks for giving the kids a bath, honey," and five minutes later say, "You forgot to take out the trash—again," the negative drowns out the positive.

Our brain needs a higher number of positive entries to counterbalance this built-in negativity bias. And several small, frequent, positive acts pack more punch than one giant-size positive. The size of the positive doesn't count; quantity does. It's strictly a numbers game.

That's why throwing his wife an expensive surprise birthday party at a fine restaurant can't make up for a husband's daily negative behavior and remarks. And a wife's present to her husband of that new riding mower he had his eye on won't compensate for her continual nagging and critical comments. One super-size positive cannot offset multiple negatives. 

The right formula

How many positives are needed to offset one negative? At least two-to-one, experts say. Research-ers have concluded that when applying this formula to our most intimate relationships, the ratio of positives must be even higher. Among those researchers is psychologist Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington. Gottman says the formula should be five-to-one for married couples. So how do you accomplish that?

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up today for our weekly newsletter: Marriage & Family Newsletter. CT's weekly newsletter to help women grow their marriage and family relationships through biblical principles.

Communication; Marriage; Wounds, Emotional
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 2008
Posted September 12, 2008

Read These Next

For Further StudyFor Further StudyDownloadable resources to go deeper


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

May 25

Follow Us

More Newsletters