The Positive Power of Negative Thinking

via Tim Guow
In 1587, the Roman Catholic Church developed a system that helped them decide better with the canonization of certain candidates for sainthood. The system involves two people: the advocatus Dei (representative of God) and the promotor fidei (promoter of the faith). The latter opposes the canonization through critical evaluations of the candidate’s values and character, arguing deeply with the advocatus Dei –which is why the promotor fidei has been also entitled the “devil’s advocate.”

The relevance of the devil’s advocate role was emphasized by Adam Grant in his book “Originals” when he said that “When you have a preference, you seek out information supporting it, while overlooking information that challenges it.” This is what psychologists call confirmation bias and it is one of the most insidious illusions that cloud good judgment. Surely, the Catholic Church had noticed this that time and found the solution through the system. Most remarkably, the practice has been found so effective for growth that until now, corporations and institutions still use it.

Going deeper to its core, the system is not limited to a collective setting –hints and clues of the system are left behind the steps of successful individuals, too. By asking themselves the right questions, they have conditioned a part of their minds to act as devil’s advocate at will –they have accepted negative thinking without any emotional attachment.

One example is Usain Bolt when he said that he “can get beat any day.” By recognizing and taking this negative thought in, he’s able to imagine a realistic picture of his strengths and limits.

via Toronto Star
Asking how he can possibly lose, he discovered his weakness with starting each race –and with acceptance, Usain Bolt worked out other areas of his game: particularly his acceleration. Now, he is the fastest man in the world, even without being the fastest starter. That’s the power of recognizing and accepting the negative!

There are better starters than me, but I am a strong finisher.” –Usain Bolt

How Negative Thinking Can Help Your Business

This time, on the business side, Richard Branson emphasizes constructive negative thinking as one of the most helpful tools in running his companies. He said: “What’s the most critical factor in any business decision you’ll ever have to make? Basically, it boils down to this question: If this all crashes, will it bring the whole house tumbling down like a pack of cards?” And so with this comes a process of refining decisions until the impact (if something tragic happens) can be absorbed with fortitude.

Here, the part of him playing the devil’s advocate in every decision delivers one very important business function: protecting the downside.

Negative thinking has great power in itself, whether on a collective or individual setting. One important thing to remember though, is that it’s highly “volatile.” Only use it with an inclination towards improvement, or else you might fall into the danger of dwelling in it. Like a devil’s advocate, negative thinking must be used intelligently –serving as a counterweight to a possible confirmation bias.

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