In October 2015, I wrote about the NIMBYs vs YIMBYs as it related to the Kensington Legion site redevelopment in West Hillhurst. This February, Jim Brown interviewed me on his CBC Radio show The 180 about my thoughts and experience on the ever-increasing amount of community engagement cities require before approving new development projects in established communities.
During The 180 I talked about how it seems people who feel negatively about a new project in their neighbourhood are much more passionate and motivated to speak out than those who think it is a good idea. I then made an off the cuff remark “that if anyone is aware of research that documents that human’s negative feelings are stronger than positive ones’ I love to hear from them.”
To my surprise I got 10 responses from listeners with suggestions of books and research papers to read and a TED Talks to check out, all relating to how humans process negative and positive impacts on their lives.
I thought it would be interesting to share my research, given the NIMBYs recently delayed approval of a controversial Land Use change in Chinatown to allow for more community consultation.
Alison Ledgerwood’s (University of California at Davis, social psychologist) TED Talk “Getting stuck in the negative” gave the best explanation of how humans innately focus more on the negative than the positive.
In a series of very simple experiments Ledgerwood cleverly documents that once humans see something as negative their opinion stays negative, even after they are given some positive new or information.
On the other hand, people who think of something as positive initially can change their thinking and become negative when presented with some negative news.
She even documents humans process negative new faster than positive news.
Ledgerwood’s take away message is “our view of the world has a fundamental tendency to tilt towards the negative. It is easy to go from something being good to it being bad, but much harder to go from bad to good.”
While Ledgerwood doesn’t coin the term, I think it might be useful to call this the GSIN (getting stuck in the negative) Syndrome.
Losses trump gains
Several of the people who responded pointed out that what I was talking about was “loss aversion.” An existing psychological term the refers to the fact humans feel impacted more negatively by the loss of something than they feel impacted positively by an equal gain.
So what we have happening when we get a few people, who are adamant that a new development in their neighbourhood is bad, is not necessarily NIMBYism (not in my backyard) but really “loss aversion.” It makes sense. The negative lobbyist are always those who are going to lose something tangible – a park, green space, golf course, quiet street, parking in front of their house, sunlight and/or privacy.
On the other had, those who are positive about the new development see the future gains in much more abstract terms – maybe increase transit, school enrollment, park improvements, cafés and shops. They are not as likely to be as passionate.
What Ledgerwood’s research shows is that if enough negative information is presented to those who were at first positive or perhaps even sitting on the fence they have the potential to become negative.
This is exactly what happens with major projects in established community over and over again. Those who think negatively will come out to meeting after meeting vehemently opposed; send emails to politicians and media and demand that changes be made to fit their exact view of what is acceptable.
They will rant to their neighbours and anyone who will listen to them about all the negatives, in hope of converting them to the negative side. The longer the engagement goes on the more passionate, frustrated and larger then negative lobby becomes.
Ledgerwood’s work demonstrates those who feel negatively about a new development in their neighbourhood will rarely change their mind no matter how much positive information they are given. This means no amount of community engagement will change their thinking from negative to positive. In fact the unintended consequence of an extended collaboration process could be to create more negativity?
Perhaps it is time we accept there is no perfect project and that some people will get “stuck in the negative” and no amount of public engagement is going to change that.
An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, Saturday May 21, 2016 titled "Some people will always dwell on the gloom."
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