Alison Ledgerwood: How Can We Reframe Setbacks In A Positive Light?

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 28, 2019 11:16 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Setbacks.

About Alison Ledgerwood's TED Talk

Why do we fixate on the negative? Why do setbacks stick in our minds for so long? Alison Ledgerwood shares ideas on how we can change our thinking patterns to reframe setbacks in a positive light.

About Alison Ledgerwood

Alison Ledgerwood is a social psychologist and a professor and Chancellor's Fellow at the University of California, Davis.

In addition to her academic appointment in the department of psychology, Alison Ledgerwood is the principal investigator for the Attitudes and Group Identity Lab.

Her research centers on the psychological tools that enable humans to move beyond their immediate experience. Professor Ledgerwood also investigates how humans get stuck in particular ways of thinking, as well as the psychological tools that enable them to get unstuck.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about setbacks.


RAZ: And one of the hardest things about setbacks is they stay with you. They're hard to shake. And in some cases, they can even consume you.

ALISON LEDGERWOOD: Right. So it's this ubiquitous phenomenon that everyone can probably relate to instantly - right? - that you get negative feedback or criticism, or somebody says something mean to you, or you have a hard commute, and it just sticks in your mind...

RAZ: Yeah.

LEDGERWOOD: ...And you keep perseverating on it and obsessing about it.

RAZ: This is Alison Ledgerwood. She's a psychology professor at UC Davis.

LEDGERWOOD: And part of the reason for that might be that, evolutionarily, this tendency for our minds to focus on negative information and perseverate on it could have been very adaptive in our ancestral past, right? It makes sense that when we're wandering around the ancestral plains or wherever we were, that once we think, oh, there might be a tiger over there, that possibility of a negative would attract our attention, and that we would keep thinking about it. You don't want to forget about the tiger because you're looking at the pretty hillside.

RAZ: Yeah.

LEDGERWOOD: But in the modern-day world, where we're generally safe from tigers, it would be nice to move on from negative information, and yet that tendency for our minds to look for it and hold onto it might still be there.

RAZ: How do our perceptions change based on whether we're presented with positive information versus negative information?

LEDGERWOOD: You know, there's a wealth of research across the behavioral and social sciences suggesting that the way that we see the world and the way that we see the proverbial glass changes dramatically - kind of shockingly, when you think about it - depending on how the world or the glass is described or framed. So if you focus people's attention on the half-full glass, they tend to like the glass a lot; they think it's a great glass. If you focus their attention on the half-empty glass, they don't like it anymore.

So in research and studies that have tested this idea - you know, it's not a glass; it's a policy, a program, a person - I can tell you about the percentage of people whose jobs have been lost over the last five years or the percentage of people who have kept their jobs over the last five years, and even though I'm telling you mathematically identical information, you'll end up thinking that the policy, the economic prospects of the country, whatever it is that you're thinking about, is better when I focused your attention on the part of the glass that's full, compared to when I focused your attention on the part of the glass that's empty.


RAZ: Here's more from Alison Ledgerwood on the TED stage.


LEDGERWOOD: But we wondered, what happens when you try to switch from thinking about it one way to thinking about it another way? Can people shift back and forth, or do they get stuck in one way of thinking about it? Does one of these labels, in other words, tend to stick more in the mind?

Well, to investigate this question, we conducted a simple experiment. We told participants in our experiment about a new surgical procedure, and we randomly assigned them to one of two conditions. For participants in the first condition, the first group, we described the surgical procedure in terms of gains - we said it had a 70% success rate. And for participants in the second group, we described the procedure in terms of losses - we said it had a 30% failure rate. So it's the exact same procedure; we're just focusing people's attention on the part of the glass that's full or the part of the glass that's empty.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people like the procedure when it's described as having a 70% success rate, and they don't like it when it's described as having a 30% failure rate. But then we added a twist - we told participants in the first group, you know, you could think of this as a 30% failure rate, and now they don't like it anymore; they've changed their minds. And we told participants in the second group, you know, you could think of this as a 70% success rate. But unlike the first group, they stuck with their initial opinion. They seemed to be stuck in the initial loss frame that they saw at the beginning of the study.


RAZ: I mean, how do you - when you think about training your brain to focus on positive thinking, what do you - like, how do you start to do that?

LEDGERWOOD: I personally think of it as practice and as something that I do incrementally, in little baby steps, right? And so I look for opportunities to do it in my daily life. There's research by my colleague, Dr. Emmons at UC Davis, suggesting that just spending a few minutes each day writing about things in your life that you're grateful or thankful for can boost people's happiness and well-being. That's one way to do it - just every morning for two minutes. These days I do it in a more informal way. I try to spend time rehearsing and practicing and sharing the little positive pieces of my day, as opposed to - or maybe it's better to say, in addition to - the negative pieces.

So for example, this morning my toddler decided - he's been, like, fiercely independent, and he hasn't liked hugs for, I don't know, several months, since he became a grown-up at the age of 18 months or whatever it was. And today he decided that bear hugs are really cool. So I got five bear hugs...

RAZ: Wow.

LEDGERWOOD: ...In a row.


LEDGERWOOD: Would you like a bear hug?



It was pretty much the coolest thing ever.

RAZ: Yeah.

LEDGERWOOD: In the moment, I felt great.


LEDGERWOOD: How about a bear hug?



LEDGERWOOD: And then about two minutes later, I also felt great, and about three minutes later, that positive feeling started to fade - right? - because I was thinking about all the things I have to do today. And so I made myself go back and think about wait, the bear hugs - how many were there? There were five. Not one, not two - five whole bear hugs in a row.


LEDGERWOOD: What are you doing?


LEDGERWOOD: I tried to do things - right? - to practice thinking about that 60-second interval in my day that was really great because without practicing it and rehearsing it and sharing it with other people, it was going to be very fleeting and sort of unfairly fleeting compared to the other little things that are going to happen today.



LEDGERWOOD: (Laughter).



RAZ: You know, I was thinking about memory, right? Like, it seems like the way our brain is constructed, like the architecture of our brain, is such that when we think about our own personal narratives, whether it's over the course of a day or a week or a month or years, that setbacks are just really prominent, that it's almost as if we remember those more than the triumphs. Is that true?

LEDGERWOOD: I think it probably is true to the extent that we encode the setback as a negative thing and the triumph as a positive thing, right? And that also suggests - that way of thinking about it maybe suggests that if we can encode the setback as an opportunity instead of a failure - right? - as the time we had the chance to do something differently, that we might be able to sort of change that imbalance in our memory.

RAZ: I just want, like, a pill, like - or an electric current that can do that for me.

LEDGERWOOD: So you want me to zap the part of your brain that helps you think about the positives.

RAZ: Yeah, I want you to zap it. Yeah, I want you to zap people, right?

LEDGERWOOD: The thing is I don't know if we actually want that. It sounds great.

RAZ: Yeah.

LEDGERWOOD: And I kind of want the one that zaps me into sleeping.

RAZ: Yeah.

LEDGERWOOD: But you don't want it all the time, right? You don't want your mind to always be - like, it's useful. It is useful a lot of the time for our minds to focus on the negative information. You want your mind focused there so you can actually improve. So you wouldn't want me to zap the part of your mind that does that because you would just be sort of stuck where you are now. You would never be able to learn from your mistakes. You would never be able to do better next time.

And you also might not be able to deal with real negative events that require a lot of thinking. So if you go around with zapped brains all the time, that's probably not actually what we want. What we want is the ability to focus on negatives and think about negatives when it's useful to us and the ability to reframe the moment and focus on positives when that's the most useful thing.


LEDGERWOOD: One, two, three - oh, everybody bear hug.


RAZ: That's Alison Ledgerwood. She's a psychology professor at UC Davis. You can hear her entire talk at


LEDGERWOOD: Everybody's hugging. All right. Goodnight.

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