This is an example of what scientist call the good news/bad news effect; which is a bias in belief formation. When people are exposed to new facts they tend to alter their beliefs less in response to negative information than to positive information. This is why beginning writers give preeminence in their minds to the examples of successful self-published writers like Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, John Locke, or Hugh Howey, and discount the stories of tens of thousands of other writers that are struggling out there to get their books noticed. This effect, of course, goes beyond writing. It is related to things as massive and complex as economic bubbles.
But there is a fascinating development in this field. Scientists have identified a brain structure that is involved in the good news/bad news effect. It is called the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and we have two of them located in our brains (right and left). The left IFG has been linked to the capacity for adjusting beliefs in response to good news whereas the right IFG has been linked to the capacity for adjusting belief in response to bad news. In the majority of people the left IFG either has a greater activity and/or tends to inhibit the function of the right IFG. This makes it less likely that individuals will change their beliefs in response to bad news.
In a recent experiment scientists asked a group of subjects to list what their odds were of experiencing 40 adverse life effects (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, robbery, etc.). The individuals were then presented with the real probabilities of experiencing these events (good or bad news), and they were asked to list their odds of these events again. This way the scientists gauged whether these persons changed their beliefs in response to this new information (positive or negative). The researchers found that the individuals exhibited the usual good news/bad news effect (i.e. they changed their belief less in response to bad news). Then the scientists combined this experimental protocol with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS has the effect of temporarily disrupting the functioning of the brain area that it targets.
When they disrupted the functioning of the left IFG the researchers found that this allowed the right IFG to become more dominant. Individuals so treated tended to change their beliefs more in response to bad news. By this selective disruption the scientists modified the bias in belief formation in the human brain. They eliminated the good news/bad news effect!
This study cements the notion that the “set point” in our brains seems to be hard wired to dismiss negative information rather than modify our beliefs (i.e. we learn less from bad news). But this study also raises the intriguing possibility that this behavior can be changed.
So, should beginning authors endeavor to develop a realistic pessimistic outlook of their publishing success? Should they perhaps even consider getting their left IFG zapped by TMS to be better able to do this?
I think that “keeping your feet on the ground” is a good thing. But fully grasping how high the odds of failure are can have a stifling effect on individual initiative. Maybe the only way for a few to reach the highest heights is for countless thousands to fall short trying. That may the price society has to pay to generate dreams that motivate people to action. Perhaps new authors are better served by following the age old maxim: hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
What do you think?
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