Negative attitudes often pose an obstacle in life and a drag on personal development – or so we think. However, negative attitudes are not that bad, and positive attitudes are not that good. Between both labels there is a richer and complex world that not only determines our attitudes but also its consequences.
Since in many circumstances of life attitudes become a force that pushes us in one direction or another, if we want to protect our mental balance and avoid many unnecessary problems, we need to understand what attitudes are and how to manage them properly.
What is attitude exactly?
Attitude is an orientation towards life. It is a posture that leans us in one direction or another and determines our behavior. David G. Myers explained that “Attitude is an evaluative reaction, favorable or unfavorable, towards something or someone, which is manifested in one’s beliefs, feelings or intentions.”
In fact, our core values, beliefs, and worldview lie at the foundation of attitude, which acts as an inner drive that pushes us to action. Carl G. Jung believed that “Having an attitude implies a disposition to a certain thing, even if it is unconscious; which it means to have a priori a direction towards a determined end, represented or not”. This implies that our attitudes tend to feed more from the past than from the present.
In this sense, Solomon Ash was convinced that “Attitudes are enduring dispositions formed by previous experience”. Therefore, the attitude would be an orientation towards the future based on what we have lived and the conclusions that we have drawn from those experiences. However, since the world is constantly changing and what was valid yesterday may no longer be valid today, it is very important to constantly reevaluate our attitude in the light of new experiences and ask ourselves if it is the right one, the most useful or the most intelligent.
Negative attitudes are not as “bad” as we think
The list of negative attitudes that we can assume throughout life could be endless. For example, a passive attitude is considered negative because it implies the absence of initiative and activity, two values that our society extols.
Pessimism is another example of a negative attitude because, in theory, it leads to a gray vision of the world. Aggressive attitudes are also considered negative because they imply a lack of self-control and can cause harm to others or to oneself.
Likewise, an interested attitude is classified as undesirable because it implies putting our needs before those of the others in a selfish way. Instead, society promotes altruism, considering it a positive and desirable attitude in its members.
However, although there is no doubt that attitudes such as pessimism, passivity, aggressiveness or selfishness can become a drag on the development of the individual, there is also no doubt that the psychological function of the supposed “negative attitudes” it is much more complex.
Western society tends to understand attitudes as antipodes, opposite extremes without points in common in which one is desirable a priori and the other absolutely undesirable. That is why we always refer to polarized attitudes: either we are proactive or reactive, or we are interested or disinterested, or we have a negative or positive attitude.
However, an attitude is not negative per se. In other words, a pessimistic attitude, which is normally classified as “negative”, can be justified and even adaptive in certain contexts. The Stoics, for example, advocated an attitude that today we would classify as pessimistic.
Marco Aurelio wrote: “Begin each day by saying to yourself: Today I will meet with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill will and selfishness…” For these philosophers, that “negative” attitude was fundamental to balance our expectations and build resilience.
Therefore, negative attitudes should not be “measured” with a moral yardstick but by taking into account their adaptive component; that is, its influence on our life. From this perspective, a negative attitude is one that becomes a burden while a positive attitude is one that helps us overcome problems or conflicts and helps us grow as people.
Evil that arises from good – and vice versa
A study conducted at Xiamen University revealed that socially positive values such as a sense of justice, loyalty, caring, authority, and purity generated greater sensitivity to disgust and could end up exacerbating negative attitudes toward homosexuality.
It has not been the only research that has discovered how certain values considered positive and socially shared can become the seed of negative attitudes towards other groups. Portland State University psychologists found that an emphasis on values such as beauty, mind-body communion, personal productivity, success, and socioeconomic status are at the root of negative attitudes toward people with disabilities.
All values, including those we classify as positive, end up provoking quick gut feelings of like and dislike, rather than reflective deliberation. This visceral evaluation can activate negative attitudes towards everything that does not comply with the social canons that we have internalized and of which we consider ourselves strongholds.
Instead, a very curious experiment developed at the University of South Florida shows us the positive functions of negative attitudes. These psychologists found that students who had negative attitudes towards an unknown teacher, had done more research on him and come to know him better than those who had had a positive attitude from the first moment.
That means that negative attitudes, provided they are not extreme, can prompt us to seek more information and delve into what arouses our dislike or suspicion. On the other hand, positive attitudes would generate a more passive and disinterested line of action, accepting what is presented to us as good.
Likewise, these researchers found that negative attitudes towards the teacher also brought students closer together and generated a bond. Consequently, negative attitudes even have a binding power.
How to deal assertively with negative attitudes?
There is no point berating ourselves for a “negative attitude” if it makes us feel worse. In some circumstances, these negative attitudes have an explanation and even an adaptive function. Therefore, the first step is to accept what happened. Radical acceptance frees us from guilt and allows us to grow. What done is done. The next step is avoiding that it could happen again.
To determine if it is a negative attitude that we need to eradicate, we must evaluate three aspects:
1. Intensity. Intense attitudes reduce our repertoire of responses and often lead us to react in an unreasonable way. Therefore, whatever the attitude, if it is particularly impetuous, it is worth exploring it to discover what are the experiences that are generating that visceral reaction of like or dislike. If we don’t, we can be victims of an emotional hijacking.
2. Adaptability. Negative attitudes can be adaptive under certain conditions. A more aggressive attitude, for example, could help us deal with a person who wants to hurt us. A passive attitude could also calm a person on the verge of exploding. Therefore, it is a question of abandoning the labels of “good” and “bad” applied a priori to assess whether a certain attitude, in a certain context, is adaptive or not.
3. Consequences. All attitudes have consequences, some are positive and some are negative. Therefore, we cannot forget the echo that a certain attitude generates, both in others and in ourselves. Have we felt better or worse? Has our attitude hurt or helped others?
If we say that an attitude has been negative because its intensity overwhelmed us, did not help us solve the problem or its consequences have been disastrous, then it is worth changing it. After all, there is always psychological scope for improving an attitude.
To do this, it is often enough to give ourselves a couple of minutes before reacting and ask ourselves: Am I reacting to what is happening or am I getting carried away by my past experiences? Once we have stopped the first impulse, we must ask ourselves: What attitude would be the most appropriate to face this situation?
At the beginning it can be difficult, but with practice we can develop more adaptive attitudes that make us feel better and help us navigate the complex sea of life with less setbacks.
Wang, R. et. Al. (2019) The Association Between Disgust Sensitivity and Negative Attitudes Toward Homosexuality: The Mediating Role of Moral Foundations. Frontiers in Psychology; 10.3389.
Weaver, J. R. & Bosson, J. K. (2011) I feel like I know you: sharing negative attitudes of others promotes feelings of familiarity. Pers Soc Psychol Bull; 37(4): 481-491.
Livneh, H. (1982) On the Origins of Negative Attitudes Towards People With Disabilities. En I. Marini & M. A. Stebnicki (Eds.), The psychological and social impact of illness and disability (13–25). Springer Publishing Company.