Dr. Alison Ledgerwood speaking at #SAWACON

Positive Thinking for Positive Outcomes: Fighting Negativity Bias

Click here to watch a recording of this session.

Negative thoughts about the issues we face specifically as animal welfare professionals, and generally as human beings, can impact how we feel every day. Dr. Alison Ledgerwood, a social psychologist or “professional people watcher” based at University of California at Davis, studies how the way we “frame” an issue impacts the way we feel about it.

In her general session at the SAWA conference, Dr. Ledgerwood shared social science research that shows how and why the framing of an issue is so important. She also shared strategies for how to effectively reframe an issue to be more positive.

Dr. Ledgerwood’s research has significant importance for animal welfare professionals. For example, how we think about our jobs, in terms of animal lives saved versus animal lives lost, is impacted by how we frame our challenges. Her research also has implications for changing negative perceptions about shelter pets to encourage more adoptions.

It’s all in the framing

The classic question – is the glass half full or half empty? – really does predict how you feel about that glass. Dr. Ledgerwood shared a number of behavioral science experiments that proved that how you talk about that glass, or other topics, matters a lot.

If you start by saying that the glass is half full, people tend to like it. If the emphasis is on the glass being half empty, people like it a lot less. In Dr. Ledgerwood’s words: “It’s all in the framing.”

To test this, Dr. Ledgerwood’s team tested a number of statements about politics, medical innovations and policy ideas. When a person was introduced to a topic with a positive frame, they were more positive about that statement compared to people who heard the statement with a negative frame.

For example, people were significantly more positive about a new medical procedure when they heard that it had a “70% survival rate” (positive frame) versus a “30% mortality rate” (negative frame).

Negative thoughts are “sticky”

Dr. Ledgerwood’s research takes the issue of framing one step further. It is intuitive that people are more positive about a topic when they hear about it in a positive light. Dr. Ledgerwood’s team then investigated whether the initial positive or negative frame had longer term effects.

Having negative thoughts is a natural part of being human, and may be related to our evolutionary process. Thinking through possible negative outcomes is important when safety is at stake, for example. Evolution may have favored our ancestors who thought through possible dangers and thus avoided them.

In the modern world, we generally have greater safety, but the tendency of negative thoughts to stick in our mind continues. To prove this, Dr. Ledgerwood’s research team tested how people felt about a statement after seeing it framed one way, and then the opposite way.

In their experiment, people who saw the issue framed negatively first, then positively, actually had a less positive perception overall. The initial negative frame stuck more than the positive one that followed. People who saw the issue framed positively first, then negatively, still had a more positive overall opinion than the other group.

Positivity takes practice

Dr. Ledgerwood emphasized that finding ways to be more positive is something we should all practice, given our tendency towards negativity bias, or remembering the negative more strongly than the positive:
“We have to work to see the upside. We can get better at this. We can train our minds to do this.”

She shared a number of strategies for how to break the cycle of negativity for better physical and mental health:

  • Practice gratitude. Research proves that spending just a few minutes each day writing down what you’re thankful for can improve your health over time.
  • Practice reframing. When bad news or negative experiences happen, look for the part of the experience that is positive and focus on that. For example, when a terrible case of animal abuse happens, think about the many responsible, loving pet parents and how many more of them there are than the violent exceptions. Thinking about all of the hardworking people who rush in to help that animal can also be a way to reframe a horrible event more positively.
  • Rehearse good news. Practice sharing good news daily and think about the positive outcomes as much as possible, even in the midst of events that aren’t as positive.
  • Find ways to break cycles of negativity. There are certain research-proven activities that can make us feel better. These include exercise and social connection. Even talking to strangers has a positive effect, for both the person doing the talking and the person listening.

Dr. Ledgerwood emphasized that despite the evolutionary tendency to focus on negative thoughts, we can all get better at finding positive frames for negative issues and events when they happen.

Applying reframing research to animal welfare

Dr. Ledgerwood ended her session by discussing the implications of her research on animal welfare professionals.

Here are a few examples of how reframing and focusing on the positive can be done, even among stressful days at a shelter:

  • Emphasize the positives of pet ownership. Research has shown that pet ownership itself provides mental health benefits. Explaining how owning a pet can improve human lives is a positive way to frame the decision to adopt.
  • Reframe breed characteristics. Discussing the positives about a breed first can help mitigate negative perceptions.
  • Emphasizing positive frames to shelter staff. For example, start a team meeting by first reviewing data about how many lives were saved, versus how many were lost.

There are also times when positive messaging may not be the best approach. For example, if your goal is to have people take action to avoid an immediate negative outcome, focusing on the negative may be more effective. This is true as long as your messages focus on how your audience has the power to prevent something bad (or worse) from happening.

View Dr. Ledgerwood’s TED Talk or read more about her and her work


This article was written live during the 2015 Annual Society of Animal Welfare Administrators Conference. This post reflects our bloggers’ understanding of the session and the materials shared by presenters.


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