The Devil You Know

There is ample empirical evidence for an asymmetry in the way that adults use positive versus negative information to make sense of their world; specifically, across an array of psychological situations and tasks, adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.

Vaish, Grossmann and Woodward


We have built up a set of ego habits for gaining satisfaction. For some it involves pleasure; for others…it involves pain. As you look at many people’s lives you see that their suffering is in a way gratifying, for they are comfortable in it. They make their lives a living hell, but a familiar one.

Ram Dass


Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.


Why do we always look for the worst that could happen? Why are we so afraid? A friend’s daughter has been looking for a job in her chosen vocation for several years now. When she finds possibilities and applies, instead of feeling hopeful and excited, she tells herself she probably won’t get it. Her reasoning is why get her hopes up just to get disappointed. How many of us do the same thing, reasoning we don’t want to get our hopes up? If we expect the worst, we won’t be disappointed when it happens, we tell ourselves. But we are disappointed. So instead of spending our lives feeling happy and hopeful, we spend it feeling anxious, sad and afraid. Why do we do this?

Research tells us we have a good evolutionary reason for this. When we were cavemen, if we saw something on the ground that looked like a snake or a stick, we were much better off erring on the side of the snake. If it was stick and we didn’t pick it up for our fire, all we lost was that opportunity of finding a stick, there would be more. If we picked up what we thought was a stick and it turned out to be a snake, we might not have another opportunity to pick up anything. So we are all hardwired to be much more attuned to the negative in life, the negativity bias. We look more frequently for things that could hurt us to avoid, than we look for things that could help us. We remember situations connected with negative emotions more than we remember situations connected to positive emotions.

More than likely we are trying to protect ourselves from disappointment. We see this as a safety issue. This also explains why we prefer to be miserable in what we know, than to take a chance on something we don’t know. We feel safe, although miserable. We have been hardwired to protect ourselves, but in this present day we are actually much safer than our distant ancestors. Our lives aren’t a daily battle to avoid death at every turn. But we are hardwired to look at our world as a dangerous one that we need to protect ourselves from. How much joy and opportunity are we missing because of this? How many Divine messages are we missing? By focusing on the negative, we may believe we are safer, but are we really? We can change our outlook, but it will take an effort to look for the positive. Here is a great article by James Clear that can get you on your way!

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