The "Never Say No" Economy

"No" is not a word one hears very often in the new normal centrally-planned, no consequence world in which the world increasingly finds itself. As ConvergEx's Nick Colas notes, there is good reason not to scare people off as the power of the word “No” in human interaction shows its psychological heft is inversely proportional to its length. From early childhood, Colas points out, we learn that “No” signifies a negative outcome, and that wiring stays with us the rest of our lives. Studies using brain-imaging scans show this in detail. Subjects who hear the words “Yes” and “no” exhibit dramatically different brain activity. “No” gets processed slightly more slowly, but with powerful negative emotion. The result is less trust and cooperation from the person who hears “No”. If that is your desired result, “No” is your word of choice. But if it isn’t, try something else.


Via ConvergEx's Nick Colas,

“Never tell your CEO ‘No’.” I heard that bit of wisdom today from a veteran investor relations professional. He was speaking at a conference about the role of IR in the capital markets and inside of corporations, and he paused for effect after he said it. He clearly wanted the audience to know he was passing along an important corporate life lesson, and he wanted to make sure we all heard him.
At first blush, it seemed like something that a typical business/political animal might say. Someone, perhaps, who had fought all the usual wars inside large enterprises and come out victorious.  Or at least not been fired.
As he spoke further, however, it became clear that he was not espousing the kind of Yes-man obsequious behavior we all take as a sign of both a broken corporate culture and personal weakness. Far from it, in fact.  It is part of the IR professional’s job to deliver tough news to the company’s C-level officers. You just never use the word “No” as you dish out the tough love. That was his message.
A quick review of the psychological literature on the word “No” explains the wisdom of his warning.  Essentially, when a human being hears the word, they begin to shut down. The need for approval is so deeply ingrained in our inherently social natures that the word “No” conjures up early childhood memories of parental control and lack of approval. If this all feels a little Freudian, fear not – the data exists to back up these observations.
A study in the journal Emotion (Alia-Klein, Goldstein, and Volkow 2007, link below) explains some of how this works.  The researchers put 23 healthy adult males in a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine, which records regional brain activity, and exposed the subjects to repeated vocalizations of the words “Yes” and “no”.  A summary of their findings and interpretations follow here:

The hypothesis tested was that humans learn the meanings of “Yes” and “no” very early in life, while their brains are still developing. As such these words acquire special emotional and motivational meaning.  The word “No” is especially powerful, since it means the listener is unlikely to get what they want right away.


By asking the subjects to press a button immediately upon hearing the two words, researchers found that the subjects process the word “Yes” more quickly than the word “no”. The difference is small – 78 milliseconds on average, or just shy of a tenth of a second – but it is measurable and consistent.


The brain scans show that that both words “Light up” parts of the brain that house emotion, showing that both “Yes” and “no” have special significance.  The researchers also asked the subjects of the study to rate the words for their emotional significance, and the responses confirmed that both carry a lot of baggage. Other words used in the study, like “Up” and “Ten” did not elicit such responses.

Psychological research into the power of negative emotional stimulus supports this small word’s outsized power on our psych. A few other related studies (links below) on stimulus like facial expression – because who says “No” with a smile? – support the argument that “No” means trouble:

It is easier to pick out an angry face in a cluster of happy ones than the other way around. This suggests that we are hard wired to see angry faces more quickly, possibly because they pose a greater potential threat.


We recognize angry faces about 100 milliseconds faster than neutral or happy ones, even though “No” takes longer to process. Clearly, once we see an angry face we don’t have to wait around to see what its mouth has to say.


One important area of the brain – the amygdala – is especially attuned to spotting emotion in other people’s faces. It is, in fact, more responsive to an angry face than most other threatening or disturbing visual cues. The amygdala is an important part of the brain when it comes to learning, so it clearly places an unhappy face very high up on the emotional threat scale.

So, the word “No” clearly holds great sway over us. It makes us fearful and anxious.  Combine that with a less than friendly face, and our deepest brains start to fret.  What do we do with that?  A few thoughts to close out this note.

Use it sparingly. When you tell someone “No”, recognize that you are taking the listener down a deep emotional rabbit hole that ends in their earliest years and possibly unhappiest memories. That’s not some feel-good mumbo jumbo.  The fMRI brain scans show that we can’t help it. “No” is like when you smell something and it takes you back to another time and place. The trip is over before you know it, whether you like the destination or not.


Smile when you say that, mister. Angry faces have the same impact as hearing the word “No”, and it is something akin to a fight-or-flight stimulus. Our deepest wiring – the stuff that allowed our ancient ancestors to sense trouble and move along – is still with us.


Don’t let them get to you.  We are all still going to hear the word “No” a lot in our lives. But now that you know the power of the word, take a moment before you respond. Maybe the person meant to tick you off, and maybe they didn’t.

And, of course, never tell your CEO “No”.

*  *  *

Perhaps it is just that "we can't handle the truth" about the US economy... and any "no" would simply blow the meme that all is well, no matter what?