Negativity bias is the idea that people pay more attention to negative things going on around them than positive things. Research in positive psychology is interested in this topic for the possibility of changing how people view the world, and to do so the environmental and evolutionary factors in negativity bias need to be explored.
While there is plenty of evidence of this phenomenon in adults, Vaish et al. (2008) sought out evidence to explain how negativity bias emerged during development. The authors were interested not only in finding evidence of a negativity bias, but at which age did a negativity bias begin to emerge.
Although the authors don’t explicitly frame it this way, this is a question of nature versus nurture, as studying the emergence of a negativity bias can help elucidate how much of this effect is evolutionarily-based.
How and When Do Children Start to Develop a Negativity Bias?
Vaish et al. (2008) reviewed the literature and found that you can, in fact observe the emergence of negativity bias in children. One example of this is that before three years of age children used equivalent amounts of positive and negative words, whilst after three years of age children started to use about double a number of negative words while staying constant in their use of positive words (Lagatutta & Wellman, 2002).
This type of negativity bias has also been found in similarly-aged children in their recollection of past events, indicating that toddlers may remember negative events better than positive events or the same intensity, or at least discuss them more often (Fivush, 1991). Young children also seem to understand the causes of negative emotions better than the causes of positive emotions (Lagatutta & Wellman, 2001).
Vaish et al. (2008) point out that it is imperative to make sure there is no difference in stimulus intensity when studying negativity bias. This is particularly relevant when studying negativity bias in children, as they may be more susceptible to these differences.
With controlled stimulus intensity, differences in attention given to different types of stimuli can be more accurately attributed to positive versus negative values inherent in that stimuli. If stimulus intensity is not controlled, it can be a confounding variable in comparing the attention given to the positive and negative stimuli.
Finding evidence of negativity bias during development, Vaish et al. (2008) move on to the question of when this focus on the negative first emerges. While individual differences make it difficult to determine exactly when in development a negativity bias emerges, a negativity bias does indeed emerge in very young children.
According to certain experts in the field, it appears that this unbalanced focus towards the negative first emerges between six months and a year, particularly around seven months.This is evidenced by the fact that five-month-old infants pay more attention and prefer to attend to positive stimuli, while seven-month-old children pay more attention to negative stimuli (Wilcox & Clayton, 1968, Ludemann & Nelson, 1988).
Negativity Bias: Nature Versus Nurture?
As for the question of whether negativity bias is a matter of nature or nurture, there are certainly evolutionary advantages to paying more attention to negative stimuli, particularly potentially threatening stimuli. This is evidenced by the fact that infants experience more fear the more they start locomoting, which is around the same time a fear of heights can develop (Campos et al., 1992).
While evolutionary advantages might make negativity bias seem like a matter of nature, there does seem to be an aspect of nurture involved as well. In this research, Campos et. al. (1992) claim that infants may experience more fear around this time because their mothers start using more prohibitive words towards their infants. As the fears expressed by their mothers are likely important for the child’s well-being, this specific attention to negative words is advantageous to their survival.
Another exmaple of the role of nurture in negativity bias development is with children who have been mistreated. These children appear to pay even more attention to negative stimuli than children who have not been mistreated (Pollak et al., 2000). The fact that personal experience affects negativity bias indicates nurture is at least partially at play, and that negativity bias isn’t completely based on your instincts.
Is all Negativity Bias the Same?
Vaish et al. (2008) point out an interesting distinction between levels of negativity bias, showing that there appears to be a difference when dealing with stimuli that elicit different types of negative emotions.
For example, fear, sadness and disgust are all considered negative emotions. However, a closer look at these three negative emotions shows that they might not be so similar. While it seems natural that fear is involved in evolutionary processes, it seems less likely that sadness is involved in the survival instinct. Which raises the question of whether these emotions are based on learned behaviours. Teasing apart these differences could help to clarify where nature starts and nurture ends when influencing negativity bias development.
A great example of recent research into the different effects of nature and nurture on the development of judgement can be found by watching this TEDtalk by David Pizarro where he talks us through his findings on the impact of disgust on political and social judgements. Check it out:
A Take Home Message
At the end of the day, it is likely that both nature and nurture explain negativity bias. The existence of negativity bias in adults as well as infants indicates that there is a valuable role that it has played in the history and survival of our species. There is a chance of changing the way people attend to positive and negative stimuli and it comes from awareness and training the mind towards the positive. While for our ancestors, negative warnings were essential to survival in this time of seatbelts, warning labels, red lights and caring mothers we are no longer in need of a constant fight or flight response. You can learn more about getting control over your negativity bias with our recent article.
Campos, J.J., Kermoian, R., Zumbahlen, M.R. (1992) Socioemotional transformations in the family system following infant crawling onset. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 1992(55), 25-40. doi: 10.1002/cd.23219925504
Fivush, R. (1991) Gender and emotion in mother-child conversations about the past. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 1(4), 325-341. doi:10.1075/jnlh.1.4.04gen
Lagatutta, K.H., Wellman, H.M. (2001) Thinking about the past: Early knowledge about links between prior experience, thinking, and emotion. Child Development, 72(1), 82-102. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00267
Lagatutta, K.H., Wellman, H.M. (2002) Differences in early parent-child conversations about negative versus positive emotions: Implications for the development of psychological understanding. Developmental Psychology, 38, 564-580. doi:10.1037/0012-16126.96.36.1994
Ludemann, P.M., Nelson, C.A. (1988) Categorical representation of facial expressions by 7-month-old infants. Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 492-501. doi:10.1037//0012-16188.8.131.522
Pollak, S.D., Klorman, R., Thatcher, J.E., Ciccheti, D. (2001) P3b reflects maltreated children’s reactions to facial displays of emotion. Psychophysiology, 38(2), 267-274. doi:10.1111/1469-8986.3820267
Vaish, A., Grossman, 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
Wilcox, B., Clayton, F. (1968) Infant visual fixation on motion pictures of human faces. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 6(1), 22-32. doi:10.1016/0022-0965(68)90068-04