The four things you need to know about our negativity bias
In her latest guest post, workplace wellbeing educator and Positive Psychology practitioner Anna Glynn explains why the bad tends to be stronger than the good, and how we can overcome our negativity bias.
What would be greater for you – the pain of losing $100 or the pleasure of gaining $100?
For most of us, the pain of something being taken away is more intense than the pleasure experienced when it was initially given to us, even when objectively they are the same.
Similarly, the sting from criticism often outweighs and lasts longer than the warm, fuzzy feelings we get from compliments.
Likewise, we tend to be drawn to the depressing headlines in the news than the feel-good stories.
Based on these examples, it seems that the bad is stronger than good. So we have to wonder what sort of impact does this have on our lives, work and relationships?
We give more weight to the negative than the positive
Human beings are hard-wired to give more weight to the negative rather than the positive. This is due to the psychological phenomenon known as the negativity bias.
For our cave-dwelling ancestors, this wiring helped them to recognise something dangerous or threatening to their existence. Quite literally, those that paid more attention to the negative were more likely to survive.
We have been handed-down this bias so it still exists within each of us today, despite no longer being on the hunt for predators.
What this means is that we’re more inclined to focus on the negative than the positive. As in, we typically:
- Recall unpleasant childhood experiences than positive ones
- Concentrate on one bad action of a friend and overlook all the good they do
- Consider all the things we don’t have in our lives as opposed to what we do have
- Fixate on what goes wrong instead of everything that goes right.
In short, we overlook the good and overemphasise the bad, and often we do so unconsciously.
Negative emotions are our first line of defence
Negative emotions such as fear, sadness or anger are our first line of defence against external threats. It’s our brains way of communicating something important to us, and keeping us safe and out of harm’s way. Negative emotions are sort of like a necessary evil despite them being unpleasant to experience.
Although they served our ancestors well by driving them to act, we no longer need to be on high alert for oncoming predators. Yet today negative emotions can still propel us to act or to grow and develop. For example, fear can help protect us from danger and to find safety, sadness can support us to connect with those we love, and anger can let us know that something about us or a situation needs to change.
When it comes to our wellbeing however, negative emotions can act as a barrier. So taking steps to overcome the negativity bias is good for us. But the aim isn’t to avoid or eliminate all the negative emotions we experience as we need them to truly enjoy the positive. Although we don’t want a big dose of them, we need to find a good balance.
Our negativity bias hinders decision making and building connections
A few of the ways the negativity bias plays out have already been mentioned but there’s some others that are important to note.
Firstly, this wiring can make it difficult for us to be optimistic or hopeful about the future. Thinking negatively can also narrow our focus and hinder our ability to find solutions to our problems.
Secondly, the negativity bias can be damaging to our connections with others. When we meet someone knew, first impressions last, particularly when they’re bad, which is why they’re so difficult to overcome. Additionally, when it comes to our intimate relationships with others, we tend to concentrate on their flaws and to expect the worst from them. Research tells us that bad things have about two, three, or four times as much impact as good things. So what this means is that one destructive act needs five constructive acts to make up for it.
Lastly, in the workplace, this bias can impact our decision making and make us more inclined to avoid risk. We often get penalised for what we don’t do and are offered little credit when we overdeliver what was promised. When it comes to our development, we tend to focus on our areas of weakness or the skills we’re missing, rather than capitalising on what we’re good at and focusing on our strengths. We ask what are we bad at? And we try to fix this at the individual, team and organisational level. Yet this approach rarely leads to success.
Practising positivity and gratitude can overcome our negativity bias
Even though it seems like our default, the good news is that we can take action to override this negative setting.
The first step is to be aware of its existence. Acknowledge that we tend to focus on the bad, and use this information to train your brain to adopt a more positive outlook. This requires a lot of practise and is a bit like playing mental judo. The objective is to check-in with yourself during the day to consider your thoughts and where they are focused. If you find the words you’re telling yourself lean towards the bad, challenge them and consciously bring your attention to the positive, and allow them to register deeply.
Additionally, you can prioritise practising gratitude, which is one of the most useful strategies to boost our wellbeing. One way to do so is to write down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day. By doing this over time, you can slowly train your brain to start scanning your world for the positive first, and away from the negative.
The negativity bias is powerful. And trying to overcome it will be a fight. But one that is well worth it.
Want to delve deeper into the negativity bias? Here’s some great resources to look at:
- YouTube: Hardwiring happiness featuring Dr. Rick Hanson at TEDxMarin
- Book: The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister
- Article: Bad is Stronger than Good – Roy Baumeister et. al
You can also read previous articles by Anna here: How to be optimistic even when the future looks uncertain, How to avoid negative thinking traps, The four questions you need to ask to shape your new reality, Strengthening your resilience muscle, Nurturing your relationships with your colleagues when working apart