Why don’t positive stories carry?

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 4, 2009
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

Something got me thinking about City of Port Phillip’s Non Crime Hotline this morning. They have a phone number you call to report good news stories. I rang the council and found that Peter Strecker was now in charge of this initiative and he told me that it was in hibernation. It turned out that they got very few calls. There received some great stories,

like the one about the busker who had a fight erupt in front of him so he started playing “Always look on the bright side of life” and everyone started laughing and the fight stopped.

But there wasn’t enough to sustain the program. So why are we reluctant to share positive stories?

Perhaps part of the reason is that it’s hard to see the impact sharing a positive story might have. When we tell the busker story we can see it’s amusing and uplifting but perhaps not that instructional unless you’re a busker. Whereas a negative story gives us a warning on what to avoid. Consequently we are only willing to exert a small effort to pass on positive stories and ringing a hotline and listening to a recorded message might be too much of an impost. If we were aggrieved in some way (a negative story) we probably have more energy to have our story heard and therefore more willing to jump through some hoops.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. It is an excellent idea, cause usually I think it is the following:
    “News is such a downer, don’t you think? There’s all this horrible stuff going on all over the world, and the news media feels that it’s their job to bring it all to us. The worse the news is, the better the story is for them.”

  2. Greg Stewart says:

    I think good news stories can stick if they do – like you suggest – carry a payoff for the teller or listener, as you’ve suggested bad stories often do in the form of a warning.
    It’s just that a ‘warning’ is a much bigger catch-all basket giving more bad-news stories a payoff to more people than good ones. But in specific instances, good news stories can carry with almost as much tenacity – among the people for whom there’s something to be gained.
    For example, stories are one of the principle ‘shadow methods’ that clinical guidance is passed among medical and para-medical staff. (“Yes, he LOOKED like a normal heart attack patient, but then Susan noticed his breath smelled like jucy fruit chewing gum…which meant his collapse was linked to anaphalactic shock! We nearly did the wrong treatment, but Susan’s nose saved the day!”) – totally made up b.t.w., but you can see how something like that would be passed on and on among the right group.
    Also, good news stories that follow some of the catchy story arcs we like (little guy overcomes all odds etc…) are more long-lived. Jared the Subway eater who lost hundreds of pounds eating subs, and who used to stand in his old trousers holding the waistband out like a hula hoop was a good one that powered a huge advertising campaign and kept it going for years.
    Chip and Dan Heath mention both of these examples in Made to Stick.
    But in the end, I think you’re right – the key is whether that story is told in a context in which it gives us a payoff, and there are just so many of us who fall into the context called “I don’t want bad things to happen to me”, that the bad news stories will probably always have a bigger willing audience to pass them along.
    Looking forward to seeing you in London.

  3. tony joyce says:

    It is a curious conundrum
    that could be related to human nature and how we learn. You have mentioned the usefulness of mystery and suspense in stories on several occasions, and fairly recently in Why should we care about mystery stories?.

    In Robert Cialdini’s experiments in the classsroom, the students remained engaged because “he hadn’t revealed who’d dunnit.” The news media stories are all about suspense, and writers drag it out as long as they can. Besides, they get paid by the word.

    In good news, where is the suspense? It is hard to find mystery in what’s good, and it takes an exceptionally skilled writer to bring human interest stories to life.

  4. Brett says:

    My wife has a similar problem at work. She is a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at a local gym, and has found that the only formal comments (on comment cards) about her – or any other instructor – are negative, even though many of her students will tell her things like, “That was a great class.” With program cuts looming because of lower membership numbers due, most likely, to the economy, she has started reminding people that they can submit positive comment cards too. Her rationale to them: If they start cutting programs, you will want them to keep the ones you like, won’t you?

  5. Greg says:

    Downer news sells stories and gains ratings. But good stories teach and instruct…on a personal level. It does not play well to mass media or mass marketing.

  6. Amanda says:

    This is not surprising – humans have a negativity bias – which humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative than positive experiences.
    See “Bad is Stronger than Good – “Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen Vohs wrote a paper (Review of General Psychology 5:323-70).
    Also, anecdotally (no pun intended) people feel ‘silly’ or fluffy or soft when they recall past positive stories. “now’s not the time to do this, we have important problems to focus on, we have troubles to consider”. When I ask them to think of positives, some initially feel uncomfortable, once they warm up and get involved, they are energised.

  7. I think it is more a news habit. Privately we tell a lot of positive stories- and what about the pictures we make- always of smiling people?

  8. Fern Smith says:

    I remember Gabrielle and I played a game early in our relationship as we realised we remembered the negative not the positive of each others comments to one another. It changed our lives and what we countered as important. We made a point each day to focus on the positive comments and hear them,to acknowledge them, not to discount them. It took about three weeks for us to hear the positive.
    Conversations about listening to really listening, to hear the positive and to acknowledge the is really important. in my view it is how we as a collective change, change occurs through feeling safe not threatened.

  9. Robyn says:

    This reminds me of that old chestnut thrown around in marketing seminars that say a customer will tell significantly more people about a negative experience with a company than will tell of positive interactions. I don’t know whether there is any research to support that view but I suspect that negative word of mouth has, by its nature, a lot more emotion associated with it – My Car! The Money! It’s a Rip-Off! How Dare They! – which drives the need to vent. Quickly.
    Positive experiences, on the other hand, are more likely to be considered within a cognitive framework that does not engage the emotions to the same degree and so does not result in an immediate behaviourial reaction. We might think quite a bit about it about it but we don’t pass it on to others in the same way as we do with a negative story.

  10. Nathan says:

    I think there’s also a risk that people aren’t sure what a positive story is – ie. it’s easy to know you’re annoyed, but something that just brought a mild smile – is that positive? Or did it need to be a full laugh/cry depth of emotion?

  11. Sheilah Bockett says:

    That busker instinctively used a classic diversional tactic: psychologists call it a “pattern interrupt.” The term is virtually self-explanatory, but works something like the punch line of a joke. Just as the punch line’s success lies in its ability to cause the listener to reflexively change mental and emotional tracks, so too does the pattern interrupt. (As parents we unwittingly use pattern interrupts with our kids when we stop their crying after a fall by expressing exaggerated concern for the floor.) I am reminded of the time a telemarketing team’s threatened walkout was averted when one of the team brought a pink, plush frog to work and presented it to the bullying supervisor. It was made ostensibly as a token of appreciation, to be passed on to the next person doing something appreciated. Interestingly, the supervisor passed the frog on to the team member he had been bullying the most. Pattern interrupt par excellence. And a positive story demonstrating a real point.

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