Why you get upset over trivial matters

Perhaps we shouldn't feel so bad about feeling bad: thanks to an oddity of the mind, there's a good reason minor setbacks can cause more long-term distress than bigger ones.

Perhaps we shouldn’t feel so bad about feeling bad: thanks to an oddity of the mind, there’s a good reason minor setbacks can cause more long-term distress than bigger ones.

This anomaly is known as the “region-beta paradox” (I could explain why, but your time, like the supply of purple carrots, is limited) and was first described 10 years ago, in a paper entitled, “The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad,” by the psychologist Dan Gilbert and colleagues.

When truly bad things happen, they cross a threshold, triggering mechanisms that help us to recover.

To use one of Gilbert’s examples: if a woman discovers her husband has been having an affair, she may draw on all her powers of rationalisation, convincing herself it was something he had to get out of his system, or that it’s a crisis from which they’ll emerge stronger.

By contrast, if his only fault is leaving dirty dishes in the sink, her cognitive defences won’t kick in. So her anger at the lesser failing may bubble longer.

This isn’t how we think suffering works: we assume that the bigger the trauma, the more enduring the distress. But the Gilbert study shows that assumption is often false: participants recovered faster from an insult directed at themselves (a relatively major event) than from witnessing one directed at someone else.

People severely affected by terror attacks, some experts argue, can suffer less long-term trauma than those less affected. The pattern recurs in many corners of life.

People are less likely to chicken out of medical procedures they expect to be very painful, compared with less painful ones, precisely because they’re worried they will chicken out.

So while it’s silly to let trivialities infuriate us, the region-beta paradox reminds us that distress doesn’t obey simple rules; there’s no purely objective standard from which it’s possible to judge anyone’s reaction, to anything, as being over the top.

All pain hurts. Besides, the region-beta paradox suggests, it might not even be the worst thing that ends up hurting longest..

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