Shakespeare was right: it is the bad in men's lives that lives after them. At least if Stanford University psychologist Felicia Pratto is correct about what grabs people's unconscious. In her studies of how we unconsciously categorize people and things as good or bad, she finds that this mental filing system is biased to pay less attention to the good than the bad (no mention of the ugly). As a result, negative words-which grab the brain's attention-interfere with thinking more than do positive ones.
In experiments with Oliver John of the University of California, Berkeley, Pratto flashed type of different colors on a computer screen. Volunteers had to quickly name the color. The type spelled out words commonly regarded as good or bad, such as "miserly" or "dishonest." The subjects took fractions of a second longer to name the colors of negative words, suggesting that the bads had subtly interfered with their thinking. And the subjects recalled more negative than positive words. That "could explain why unfavorable information about individuals ... is often noticed and remembered better than favorable information," says Pratto. She suspects that these unconscious judgments feed into later thoughts, such as in a voting booth, when people may be swayed more by the bad they know about a candidate than by the good.
This vigilance about bad things is an evolutionary artifact. No Australopithecus ever suffered from ignoring a pretty flower, but one who overlooked the loose rocks on the steep slope might not have survived to get his genes into the next generation. The only "good" nouns that grab as much unconscious attention as bad are "babies" and "sex." When they're good, they're very good-and when they're bad, they're better?