Glass half filled with water

Credit: Getty Images/UC Davis

Professor Alison Ledgerwood looks at whether people look at whether their glass if “half full” or “half empty.”

Why are people often only fleetingly happy about positive events, but persistently upset about negative events like setbacks? Alison Ledgerwood, behavioral scientist, professor of psychology and chancellor’s fellow at UC Davis, has conducted extensive research to understand this.

Her TEDx UC Davis talk, “Getting stuck in the negatives (and how to get unstuck),” discussed her work. She and her colleague conducted simple experiments that found people naturally focus more on the negative, focusing on the glass being half empty instead of half full.

Ledgerwood conducted an experiment to see how people switch from “half empty” to “half full.” She found that it takes longer to move from focusing on the negative to focusing on the positive than vice-versa. People have to mentally exert themselves to focus on the positive. Unfortunately, it takes much less time to slide from focusing on the positive to getting mired in the negative. 

People seem to be biologically hardwired toward becoming stuck on the negative. It really is more difficult to focus on the good — especially after focusing on the bad. However, with practice, this seemingly innate predilection towards the negative can be overcome, Ledgerwood said. 

Be grateful, and focus on the good

  • Journal for just three minutes a day on how gratitude can improve mood and health
  • Rehearse and share positive news with others 
  • Be aware that “bad tends to stick” — and then purposefully focus on breaking that cycle. 

So how do you bounce back after a setback? You change your thinking. While an “attitude of gratitude” might sound trite, real science vouches for its value. 

To learn more, watch Ledgerwood's TEDx talk here or check out the recent University of California Fig. 1 video, “Your brain is wired for negative thoughts. Here’s how to change it.” below.

Is the glass half full or half empty? Turns out, the way that you present a situation to people can really change how they feel about it — our brains tend to fixate on the negative aspects over the positive ones. Alison Ledgerwood, a UC Davis professor of psychology, studies how people tend to get stuck in particular ways of thinking and what they can do to get unstuck.
Credit: University of California