Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?
- You received overwhelmingly positive feedback for something (perhaps a school assignment, your performance at work, your outfit, etc.) yet you find yourself fixating on the one or two criticisms.
- You had an intense argument yesterday, and you spend today bitter and angry, despite it being objectively good.
- You did something embarrassing years ago, but the cringe-inducing memory remains fresh in your mind.
If so, you can rejoice in the fact that most people are they like you, these are but a few examples of what psychologists call the negativity bias.
So What is the Negativity Bias
The negativity bias refers to the often asymmetrical way we perceive the negative and the positive. Simply put, negative experiences tend to exert greater psychological impact on us than positive experiences of the same magnitude. A moment of profound sadness, for instance, is usually more disruptive to one’s day than an equal moment of happiness.
This bias explains why traumatic experiences linger longer and fester in our thoughts while our most gleeful moments quickly fade into distant memories. It also explains why it takes more work to get away from a bad first impression than it takes to lower a good one. But what is the point, why do we have negativity bias?
The Purpose of the Negativity Bias
Its a product of our evolution. As it turns out, the negativity bias aided our ancestors in making intelligent decisions in high-risk situations, which in turn increased the likelihood of their survival long enough to pass on their genes.
The evolutionary and biological basis of negativity bias is supported by the findings of Vaish et al. (2008) who found that infants, in the early stages of development, “displayed a strong negativity bias in social referencing behavior as well as in discourse and memories about valenced events. The potential roots of this bias are evident by 7 months in infants’ attention to emotional expressions and emotional contagion.”
Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist and psychologist, provides a straightforward explanation in his book Buddha’s Brain. Our ancestors survived by approaching pleasant stimuli, like a carrot, and avoiding unpleasant stimuli, like an incoming stick. They eventually began to discern that avoiding a stick, and subsequent injury or death, was far more important than picking a carrot. As this bias for negative stimuli developed, our brain structure slowly adapted and eventually, we became wired to pay more attention to negative information.
How We Can Overcome the Negativity Bias
It may have served our ancestors to focus on the negative, however in this modern age we are not necessarily helped by finding every fault or threat in our daily environment, so how can we rid ourselves of the negativity bias?
Well, we are not be able to undo this evolutionary development, but we can restore balance in our lives by changing the way we interact with positive stimuli. Rick Hanson (2011) calls this process “taking in the good” and he recommends this three-step process, which when used habitually, can alleviate the stress and pain that come with focusing on the bad.
3 Simple Steps to Overcome Your Negativity Bias
1. “Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences.”
Make a conscious effort to look for positive aspects of every experience. Take active measures to notice the good in both the world and in yourself. As you do this, pay attention to any resistance you encounter within yourself and acknowledge any instinctual attempts to dismiss or deny these positive feelings, but choose not focus on them. Practicing this at least a half dozen times a day, can quickly turn it into a habit.
2. “Savor the experience.”
Attend to positive experiences. Give yourself ample time (at least twenty to thirty seconds) to fully enjoy that moment. By elongating our positive sensations, we allow more neurons to fire and wire together in response to the stimulus. This solidifies the experience in our memory.
We are predisposed to collecting and clinging to negative memories, but we can counteract this by intentionally developing a more diverse and deeply rooted base of positive memories. As we fill our memory with more positive experiences, through savouring, we become less reliant on external positive stimuli.
3. “Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you.”
This is where your mindfulness practice can come in handy, by becoming aware of the different ways in which a positive experience affects you. Identify the emotions involved. Visualize the positivity spreading throughout your body. Consider the brain’s plasticity as neurons fire and wire together. When we consciously interact with our positive experiences, we can strengthen their neurological presence in our brains.
A Take Home Message
In the face of fear and sadness, we should remind ourselves that our brains have evolved to prefer negative experiences and readily store negative memories for our own survival. When various stimuli trigger such emotions, we should consider their validity and make active efforts to learn about the specific ways in which we interact with them. Hanson emphasizes the importance of accepting that negativity is an inherent part of the human experience, alongside practicing his steps mentioned above. Rather than denying or bemoaning our negativity bias, he advises that we be mindful of it and always aim to better our understanding.
Want to know more?
To learn more about Rick Hanson and the work he is doing on Hardwiring Happiness you can check out this video or visit his website RickHanson.net :
Baumeister, R. F. (2001). Bad is Stronger than Good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4). doi:10.1037/e413792005-154
Bergeisen, M. (2010, September 22). The Neuroscience of Happiness. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_neuroscience_of_happiness
Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296-320. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0504_2
Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383-403. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383