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Confronting Negative Biases

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.

Words matter, and unfortunately, negative words are often the ones that stick with us. Proverbs 18:21 says, "life and death are in the power of the tongue." In this episode, Chris and Tim explore negative biases, where they come from, how they impact relationships, and how to deal with them.


Mandy: Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. We are grateful for listeners like you. Let's get right into it.

Chris Grace: Well Tim, it's always fun to be back and do a podcast and it's always fun to hear Mandy's voice leading us into this.

Tim Muehlhoff: I love her accent. Sounds so good.

Chris Grace: Thank you Mandy for all your work with us. Tim, there's such a joy in being able to talk about relationships. We love talking about all things relationships here on this podcast. Your background and experience communications now, PhD for I don't know how many years you've been teaching and speaking. I love the fact that we get to talk about some of the coolest things ever related to relationships. How to thrive, how to make your single years awesome and how to prepare yourself for being healthy in a relationship and there are really some fun topics we get to cover.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. People take them for granted, our relationships. We get busy about our career, we get busy about raising the kids and often our relationships suffer. We take it for granted. What we have learned the years we've been doing this podcast, ton of different guests barring from psychology, communication theory. It needs attention.

Chris Grace: It does. Even any relationship in which you begin to feel taken for granted can be actually one of the worst things that can happen to the relationship. Tim, you have a topic that I know you've been thinking about we want to talk about today related.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, because I teach communication theory. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 18-21 that says life and death are in the power of the tongue. That's true on both levels. What's interesting about research from communication theory and from psychology, but which one sticks the longest? Is it life or is it death? In other words, when you're insulted, why is it that they tend to stay with you for even decades? Once you've received an insult and it's made an impact on you, how can you counteract it? What are some ways to do that? We thought that'd be a great show. Talk about what psychologists called the negative bias. We tend to have.

Chris Grace: There's so many biases that we have with these cognitive biases throughout social psychology and psychology. Tim, I think you called this one out this idea of a negative bias. Something that has stuck with you, anything that you've held onto for number of years. I have one, I still remember some of my very first student evaluations. As a professor, we have to prepare ourselves to evaluate, to process. There could be 50, 60, 70 really good positive evaluations. Then you read the one. It was my wife who finally had to say, Chris, every time toward the evaluative period, when you get your student evaluations, you seem a little bit distracted by something. She goes, can I tell you these are glowing, they are so good. I always would say, yeah, but what about this? We tend to look at and hold on to that bias, that what's called this negativity, much more so than the positive.

Tim Muehlhoff: Let me give you an illustration. My friend has shared this publicly. I won't mention his name, but he's shared it. He's one of the top graphic designers in the Midwest. He's won a bazillion awards, but his Achilles heel is that he always feels he's dumb. I said to him, what, where in the world does this come from? You have a bazillion awards. He said, when I was really young, my dad said to me, you're a dumb bunny. Think of that. How young must you have been to be called a dumb bunny? He said, I just periodically think about that. I'm like, you got to be kidding. You're brilliant. You're... Yet, isn't it funny how certain phrases or things said in anger or adjusting? Some people ask me where my propensity from humor comes from. My dad didn't give very many compliments.

Tim Muehlhoff: He was of that generation. He was a factory worker. Compliments were hard to come by. I remember one time we were in the family car and I said something and there was a pause and he laughed. I remember him turning around saying to me, you've always been known to make me laugh. It registered and has stayed with me. Comedy is confidence.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's about to stand up in front of people and be confident even as you're bombing. Some have made careers out of bombing, but so that confidence thing, and it came from my dad's comment of kid, you can make me laugh.

Chris Grace: Yeah. Tim, then there's the other, the dumb bunny comment and that idea that our brains are highly attuned to negative news. Okay. That the negativity bias. For some reason in our history, we are tuned to that. Life and death in the power of the tongue. What are you thinking about when it comes to the impact this has and let's talk about the impact a negativity bias has on relationships as well.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. First let's borrow from your field. There's some interesting studies that have been done to show that this negative bias in fact really does exist. One researcher from the University of Chicago, he showed people pictures known to arouse positive feelings. Say a Ferrari, a pizza, UNC Chapel Hill logo, basketball team, and those certain, to stir up negative feelings. He particularly used a mutilated face of a person that had been scarred in an accident or a dead cat. Those known did produce neutral feelings. It can be a hairdryer, it could be a paper plate.

Chris Grace: Right.

Tim Muehlhoff: Then he recorded electrical activity in the brain's cortex that reflected the magnitude of response and don't you know, it was the negative ones that really created a lot of stimuli and it was a greater surge of electrical activity. That's number one. Let me do it. My favorite one, a researcher said to people, I'm going to give you $50, and we'd give him $50 and then wait a little bit and take it away from him. What was more registering. Listeners could even ask this question, are you more happy about getting $50 or are you more upset about losing 50 and his research showed people really focused on the losing of the 50.

Chris Grace: Yeah. You know, the researcher John Cacioppo which is a weird name to say, but Cacioppo is out of Ohio State.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's the dude I just quoted.

Chris Grace: Yeah, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: I didn't know how to say his name. He's now at University of Chicago cause I don't mention Ohio State Chris. I'm from Michigan, we don't mention Ohio State.

Chris Grace: Well and sadly John passed away a year ago.

Tim Muehlhoff: Now I feel bad.

Chris Grace: No.

Tim Muehlhoff: I'm just kidding.

Chris Grace: No, no. He's extremely well known in the field of social psychology cause he's a great researcher and negative bias, negativity biases, his things he studied. Tim, when you think about why this is happening, it seems as if for a lot of us that we're primed and ready to hold on to, so the brain's cortex fires stronger in response to this information that we have to pay attention to it. It would make sense if a lot of smiley faces in an audience are noticed and recognized. However, if you stick one unhappy person in an audience of a hundred, our ability to pick that person out is much faster. We pick out the negative. Then if you have a hundred negative mean ugly faces and one happy face smiling at you of out of the a hundred. Well you put people up in front of them and they will almost always, whether it's a picture or an actual audience, they'll pick the negative face out quicker than a surrounded by a sea of happy faces.

Chris Grace: Why? Well, I think maybe Tim we're predisposed, at least a lot of John's research and others is we are predisposed to seeing things that could potentially harm us, hurt us. We need to be alert to them. We tell kids, hey, watch out, watch out. Be careful here, do this. It seems as if that registers quicker. If that's the case, what role does this play when we interact with other people? Are we more likely to pick out the negative? And why when someone says is you started today, why would someone share something negative with us does it have greater impact then just simply positives? Even John Gottman, the marital researcher, uses this idea of negative and positive statements.

Tim Muehlhoff: We have a concept called feed forward. It's simply means anticipate the effect of your communication. Now, if you're a parent listening to this, I think we get feed forward a little bit. Let me tell you a funny story and I have Jeremy's permission, my youngest to tell the story. Jeremy is a gifted basketball player. He's a gifted student. He's not an artist. In fact, none of the Muehlhoffs are artists. He came home one day and he had drawn a picture and art class. It was a picture of a horsey Chris. It was not a horsey, it was a mutant horsey. This looks like a horsey from the walking dead that had been partially eaten. It was terrible, but was really excited to show it to me. Now at that moment, I kick into my life and death is in the power of the time.

Tim Muehlhoff: Intuitively as a parent, hey, be very careful here. I can crush this young artist right now by saying, Jeremy, stay with basketball. Okay? That's a terrible horsey. You know what I said to him, you know what I said, you weren't even there. What did I say, Chris?

Chris Grace: That's beautiful. This is the greatest thing I've ever seen.

Tim Muehlhoff: You traced this. Dad I did not trace this. Well would you give me another one? Cause I want to put this up in my office. Let me tell you another funny story. Our kids can't sing. They can't say. Norine and I have a running debate about who's worse at singing. When the kids would sing at church, we would just compliment them. Lying as parents, you just lie. It's even led by the Holy Spirit. We had a church musical and my kids try out because they've listened to our positive comments. Chris, they were horrible. We know to do that with kids. Do we do it with each other in a marriage relationship? Do we still have that same power? I can really make a huge difference in how I say it to my spouse. In other words, we can say negative things, but how we say it can be devastating.

Chris Grace: Yeah, I think that is really something parents have to grasp and hold on to, is for parents that have been around and a little bit more down the road in this whole parenting business. One thing I think that surprises them is how quickly their child who now may be approaching older adult years, remembers the negative and it stands out to them. You think, I don't remember your childhood or that event being all that big or negative. Now remember, now we're getting back to a tendency that we have to recall with much more clarity that, which is negative, the statement that, but that one day you were late when at my game and you missed it. Yeah. What about the 20 others that I was never late for? I think when younger parents are now dealing with children, they have to be careful and thoughtful to not quickly gloss over or ignore something that looks or appears negative to a child and thinking, well, you know what?

Chris Grace: Let's stay with the positive and let this... Instead, they really probably didn't need to. This one could have an impact and I need to counter it or be aware of it because for older parents they realize this has some consequences apparently that I wasn't paying attention to and if I could go back and tell my younger self what should I had done differently, it would have been to maybe think more about how impactful that negative thing was to this child. We think, come on, they laughed at you and you had dropped your ice cream cone and you tripped is not that big of a deal.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well when I was at UNC Chapel Hill during my PhD I taught a 300 level class on self image. The whole class was on self-image. We borrowed a ton from psych, Chris. I had students write the history of their self image. How you feel about yourself physically? how you view yourself intellectually? do you think you have a sense of humor? They did all of these different categories.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: I was absolutely blown away and had to set up office hours with five women in my class who either confessed to having an eating disorder or were currently having an eating disorder. All five linked it to something their father said, either joking or the dad tried to say to them, something like, honey, do you really want to have that extra dessert? Or maybe we should skip dessert. Maybe we should eat a little more healthy. That these women could not interpret it coming from their dad and that had sent them really in a downward spiral. That's the feed forward I think we need to have this to say dads, I don't think in a body image world that is so sick today. Women walk by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. They look, they say, I will never look like that ever. The dad needs to really anticipate the negative bias and maybe Chris, is it fair to say that in our crazy culture there's aspects of the negative bias that are on heightened alert because of our culture and body image issues being one for women?

Chris Grace: Yeah. Well, there's no doubt. Well, first of all, Tim, if we're already primed to pick up the negative, we're already, it's going to register stronger than the positive. Then of course, as hypersensitive beings anyway, when you're younger, our influences parents, wans, by the time a kid is in the fifth grade and sixth grade, it starts to turn towards peers. These peers now become all important to them. They're aware of all of their praise. All of everybody who they spend time with throughout the day is now shifted to people their age, and if they don't fit in, if they don't follow the right rules or if they don't feel like they're right or liked, man, they're going to adjust their behavior in order to receive that praise from these kids around them. That's their network. That's who they get reinforcement from.

Chris Grace: Well, sad thing is from psychology and what we've been talking about is that negative reinforcement or sometimes punishment is much more powerful than sometimes even praise. I think Tim, one example of this is why John Gottman has said and other researchers, he's not the only one, that we need to counter every negative comment that we receive or see with five positives. Well that's weird. If positive statements were more powerful than we would say the reverse. You can have five negative statements in a marriage or in a relationship, and all you need is one positive to counter because positives are so strong. By the very fact that we need a five to one to counter it shows you what you're dealing with. For a teenage person out there or a parent that has children, you can see, Tim, the role that a culture will play in showing them things that they should do or be like because they want to avoid standing out, being wrong. The word awkward, all of those things that kids struggle with.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, so let's make it practical. You have two daughters. I have three sons. Let's say hypothetically, this obviously doesn't apply to your daughters. I've met them. Let's say you had a daughter who was overweight and you felt was not living a healthy lifestyle, not drugs or anything, but just eating a bunch of junk food and sitting on the couch too much or addicted to social media and you wanted that daughter to get into shape.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: One. Do you think the dad can address that? Two. If the dad did address it, applying this negative bias, what would you suggest the dad do? First, do you think a dad can do it or should he just stay away from it and affirm her?

Chris Grace: Yeah. No. I wish I had the one perfect answer because it's so hard. Here's the problem. You have to come back to the purpose and role as a parent, who are you? What role do you play in and let's say a daughter or son's life as a father. What does a mother play in parenting and what do they need from us? Well, they need to know that they're loved, that they're safe, that they're accepted, that they're understood. That regardless of this person's physical health, the way they look, eating habits, regardless, I'm still going to accept you.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right.

Chris Grace: I still love you and there's nothing you can do that changes that. I think that's the biblical message we get from God. There's nothing I could do that would make me more desirable or less desirable in God's eyes. More loved or less loved.

Chris Grace: If I model that with my children, there's nothing they can do that's going to change my love for them. Whether they say or do things that I don't agree with, it's still not going to. Now when I want to motivate or help, I think maybe if it comes out of a loving place that says who you are is set in my eyes. You're loved and I care about you. what can I do to help you? What? Because my guess is, this child who might be struggling in this way knows clearly that they're not in a good place. They are doing what they want to do and they wish they can change. A parent would come alongside them most of the time and simply says, listen, I'm here for you. If you need anything. I think you reiterate your love for them, your identity for them.

Chris Grace: That's what Paul didn't Ephesians, he started with, who's your identity, here's who you are. All of the Ephesians, the first three chapters in there were, here's who you are, here's your standing in Christ. Here's why you're loved. Now go walk, go stand, now, do this. Establish that. Then I think they're going to say, they love me. What can I do? Can you come alongside me and help me in this? It's like, yep, let's go do it.

Tim Muehlhoff: Do you know the show, This Is Us?

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: You guys ever watch it? One character is obese. She's obese. In real life she's obese as well as this character is obese. Her mom was a lounge singer. Attractive, could really sing and the daughter just wanted to pattern herself after the mom. There was one really interesting episode with a mom tried to, she is obese. They show this. They have different actors for each stage of this person's life. There's actually an actor that represents junior high, high school and you can see the weight being put on and the mom tries to address it and it absolutely sends her in the opposite direction. Now she's out of control eating because mom thinks I'm heavy.

Tim Muehlhoff: I feel you're darned if you do, darned if you don't, attitude of little bit. I can see why parents are paralyzed a little bit. My Kung Fu instructor says this, he says, I am critiquing the technique, not the person. When I'm critiquing your side kick, not you, that's really hard to pull off, Chris. When he critiques my side kick, it is really hard for me not to take that as me. I wonder if kids can do that, if students can do that.

Chris Grace: Well imagine Tim, you always talk about the role that another person plays, whether we allow their criticism to be impactful to us is what role do they play in our lives.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right.

Chris Grace: A parent, imagine that now. If it comes to a parent child, you're navigating the waters that probably call out the need to continue to say, listen, nothing you're going to do is will change my love for you.

Tim Muehlhoff: I love you, you're beautiful.

Chris Grace: Everything about you is that.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right.

Chris Grace: I think if more kids heard that we'd be better off in general. Well I think when it comes to relationships, let's say now a dating or a roommate or a marriage and you want to motivate or change or see something there. Remember again, the negativity bias that we've been talking about causes those comments to have such a bigger impact. I believe you have to employ some antidotes. One of those antidotes that some researchers talk about would be it continued to express admiration and fondness for somebody. That will stop some of the negative comments from having a huge impact.

Chris Grace: I'll say this, in my relationship with my wife, I have to constantly work at the fondness and admiration one because I know my tendency is to be maybe a perfectionist or maybe even more critical than I mean or want. I'll notice at times Elisa will look at me or react and I didn't mean what I said so negative or critical, but I realized it was a saw that way. That's a note for me, mental to go, wait a minute there. You need to follow up with fondness and admiration here. If my wife shares something negative about something with me, I know I take it better in the context in which is fondness.

Tim Muehlhoff: From a communication standpoint. Here is a well intentioned mistake. A listener is thinking, okay, the five to one ratio.

Chris Grace: Sure.

Tim Muehlhoff: Show admiration.

Chris Grace: Fondness.

Tim Muehlhoff: Fondness, love, respect.

Chris Grace: Yeah. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: I'm going to get into the habit with my spouse or the person I'm dating. I want to say something negative.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. I want to critique you, which is fine. That should happen in a marriage.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: I'm going to start with two positives. I'm going to start with three positives and then I get to my negative. That's now my new pattern. Thus this is what happens in a marriage is you start to compliment me and it's like, crap.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: You really want to get to the one now you've got to give me three to get to the one. I think the antidote to that, Chris says there are times you are positive.

Chris Grace: Yep.

Tim Muehlhoff: There's no other shoe isn't going to drop. I simply want to compliment you. Otherwise it is. We've all had that life. Hey, did I ever tell you how much I love you as a spouse? It's like, nuts, what did I do wrong? You know what I mean? I can see how people would misinterpreted what we're saying. I think the antidote is sometimes you just share positives.

Chris Grace: Yeah, I think you're right, Tim. Because what happens is we begin to anticipate or sense patterns. The way to break that is you just simply hold it back sometimes that which maybe is bothering you because you realize my perceptions can sometimes be off here. Or I need to learn how to let something slide that I might point out. Why did you do that? Why did you do this? Or what happened with this? To let it slide, I think is one. Yeah, go ahead.

Tim Muehlhoff: Let me tell you about an exercise that I think some listeners know that I teach self-defense at a domestic violence shelter, but I also teach verbal self-defense, not just physical.

Tim Muehlhoff: I teach the women how to block a punch. Which is very important, but how do you block a verbal punch? Chris, this is what I did. I went to target and I got a bunch of mirrors, handheld mirrors, and I say to the women, I walk up to one woman. I have six mirrors. First mirror. I said, I want you to write a negative comment that was said to you about your parenting. Let's say Mother's Day is right around the corner. She writes that down and then she looks at her image through the word it's written right on the mirror. Okay, that's a negative comment. I then take five mirrors, the five to one ratio. I said, I want you to write five positive things about you and your parenting.

Tim Muehlhoff: Now, Chris, here's what happens. A lot of the women can only get two, some barely get one. This is what I say. I then turned to the rest of the group. There's on average about 20 women. Okay. You comment on this person because there's times we're stuck. I think that negative bias can be so strong. I honestly feel so bad about the job I'm doing as a husband or a professor. I can't think of five. I can't even think of one. I can think of five negatives. I can't think of, I can't even do the math on how many positives that is. 20 positives. Is that right?

Chris Grace: It's close enough. 25.

Tim Muehlhoff: Carry the one.

Chris Grace: Carry. The one.

Tim Muehlhoff: What do you do with a person who is literally stuck? I can't think of five positive things about myself. That's where the community comes in.

Chris Grace: Yeah, I like that, Tim. I'm glad that you've landed on that and working with that population in particular because what I think does happen is you do get stuck. You can miss that.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: It is also just now, you know what this reminds me of. You get the spouse that you speak into. Sometimes what happens when I speak such things in words into my spouse, what I say shapes that person and makes them who they are. You see a person who is positive and happy and proud, self-confident, oftentimes look behind and you might see somebody who's right there very much lifting them up, encouraging them, walking with them. The opposite can be true too.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. A friend of mine, Floyd Green, who used to speak with family life conferences said you eventually get the spouse you deserve because you've created the spouse. That is frightening to think about.

Chris Grace: Yeah. Well I would say it is frightening because you do get the... Those thoughts then infect us like a contagions and they began to paralyze us. Eventually for any marriage, what you have to really be able to do, I think Tim, is help couples get rid of those negative thoughts. Help them to before they take root. You do that with things like the positive emotions we've been talking about. Gratitude, forgiveness, understanding what your spouse needs or seeks or desires or if it's in a roommate situation or a friend's situation, it's speaking words of life as going back to the Proverbs.

Tim Muehlhoff: I would say be careful with the negative, because the longer you know a person, the longer you've been married, you know how to absolutely hit the negative with a capital N. Because you know that person's Achilles heel cause they revealed it to. Be very careful taking personal information and using it against a spouse. It that spouse ever says, yeah I do have body image issues and in a moment of anger you attack his or her body.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: I think that's a negative on steroids.

Chris Grace: I think you're exactly right. Here's one more piece of advice. If you're in a relationship like this and you want to work on something, work on that idea of focusing on that as what are we instructed to do in the New Testament that which is good and right and pure and lovely and of good repute.

Chris Grace: Think about those things. Remember the things that draw you in common. the values and desires and hopes and dreams that you share and call those out and remember those, and so you create this weness, this instead of these verbal punches back and forth. Instead, it's like you and me together because we share this. This is what we're like against the world.

Tim Muehlhoff: Here's your homework assignment for today. Go to somebody that ought to know you love them. Ought to know that you're proud of them and verbalize it. Walk right up to them and say, hey, I don't know if I've said this enough. I think you're a tremendous wife or husband or son or boss or you know what I mean?

Chris Grace: Tim, you have great co-hosting abilities. Can I just tell you that? You're a great co-host? You are.

Tim Muehlhoff: Thank you Chris. I'm going to receive that. I'm not going to. I'm waiting for the shoe to drop. I'm waiting for the but.

Chris Grace: Yeah, we're a little bit over.

Tim Muehlhoff: But you're math stinks.

Chris Grace: It's 25 by the way, was the answer.

Tim Muehlhoff: I was close. You think I'm discouraged. I'm actually encouraged. I was off by five.

Chris Grace: All right. Good seeing you all. Take care.

Mandy: Thanks for listening to the Art of Relationships. This podcast is only made possible through generous donations from listeners like you. If you like it and want to help keep the podcast going. Visit our website at and make a donation today.