The Public Space
November 12, 2014
get on the good foot
by Ken Mayer
I attended a meeting recently where the featured speakers promoted an upcoming conference on neighborhoods. The program looked good on paper, so I listened intently to what they had to say.
The first speaker talked about crime, the second speaker talked about crime and the third speaker talked about those people who don’t properly trim their shrubbery. Fortunately, the conference had a lot more useful content, but I was struck by the way the speakers chose to encourage attendance.
I have observed similar phenomena at neighborhood association meetings and in social networks used by neighborhood groups. During a Place Game workshop, I recall the mere mention of putting in a basketball court being seen as an attraction to the criminal element. Apparently, there’s a lot more scary stuff out there than is imagined in my philosophy.
Thankfully, the silly season is over, and I’m finally spared from incessant fear mongering intended to get my vote or sell me on a sponsor’s product. It’s gotten absurd. In my opinion, some folks are practicing a special kind of domestic terrorism to get power and money.
Yes, the world is a dangerous place, but arguably less so that it was for previous generations.
The reality is more about how we react to the world than the real danger it holds. Most of us are terrible at assessing risk, like fearing a plane crash more than a car accident when the odds are just the reverse.
But, the big factor here is an evolutionary mechanism known as the negativity bias. Reacting to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things was a safety advantage to our ancient ancestors. Makes a lot of sense if a saber tooth tiger is chasing you.
Sitting on your front porch watching a kid with baggy pants and body art walk down the sidewalk – not so much.
Perception is critical here. We construct our experience of the world largely based on what we pay attention to. More often than we realize, the negativity bias kicks in.
Recognizing it and reacting properly influences not only how we feel, but how we perform, both individually and as a group. Cultivating positive emotions pays huge dividends.
The negativity bias can also prevent moving on to more useful and productive activities.
For me, a Neighborhood Watch program is a fine idea, but it’s only a baseline. Too many associations don’t seem to move much beyond being a small social club and crime prevention society.
I know it’s difficult to engage people who have busy lives, but consider that the folks you really want involved in your neighborhood are accomplished and successful. You will never hold the attention of the go-getters with fear. They long ago conquered the negativity bias in themselves and got busy making things happen.
Worse, if those people who can help make a difference don’t see opportunities for positive change, they will leave for somewhere they can.
Conquer the negativity bias. Get on the good foot.
The Public Space
Ken Mayer is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has served on the boards of The Nebraska Choral Arts Society, Downtown Omaha Inc. and Landmark’s Inc. Mr. Mayer has been a consultant and volunteer for Omaha by Design since 2002.