To understand the negativity bias, let’s first explore the Muller-Lyer Illusion. Take a look at the image of the lines below and quickly answer: Which line is longer?
Automatically, your brain registers (B) as the longer line. Now, look at it again without the arrows.
The lines are exactly the same.
This is a visual illusion that can be visually seen but tricks our mind. When it comes to our thoughts, they cannot be seen but can sometimes play tricks on us like the visual illusion above.
Illusions of thought also known as cognitive illusions occur on a daily basis. What is known as cognitive bias contributes to these illusions.
What Is Cognitive Bias?
Cognitive bias is a systematic flaw in your reasoning causing you to misinterpret information from the world around you. It’s a way your brain simplifies the decision-making process by creating shortcuts, also known as heuristics.
However, shortcuts may not always be the best route as you don’t have a complete picture to make a fully objective decision and thus come to inaccurate conclusions.
You’re constantly bombarded with complex information from your environment on a daily basis. This forces your brain to prioritize which information needs your dedicated attention and which information can be quickly interpreted.
Your brain depends on these shortcuts to save energy when processing information to quickly make sense of your world. However, time and the amount of information you have available based on your life experiences create limitations.
These limits force you to depend on mental shortcuts to form thoughts and make decisions. Even with your brain’s ability to produce accurate results most of the time, these limitations lead to errors in your thinking.
Almost two hundred cognitive biases have been identified and mapped out. One of the more common cognitive biases is the negativity bias.
What Is The Negativity Bias?
Ever feel consumed thinking about unpleasant conversations you’ve had or setbacks you’ve encountered?
When you read the news or surf through Netflix, ever find you’re more drawn to depressing stories or tragic shows? As humans, we’re wired to focus more on negative events than positive ones.
“adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.” (Vaish, et. al., 2013, p. 383)
The way we process negative and positive occurrences (or rather pleasant versus unpleasant experiences) is not equal.
“negative events elicit more rapid and more prominent responses than non-negative events.” (Carretié, et. al., 2001, 75)
This helps explain why you may often:
- Dwell on negative feedback more than praise
- Struggle to maintain an optimistic outlook on life
- Think about unpleasant or traumatic events more than pleasant ones
- Pay attention more quickly to negative rather than positive information
Negativity bias causes us to focus on the “bad things” that occur in our day even if we’ve had a handful of good experiences as well.
Researchers have found that in general bad things are at least twice sometimes three times as powerful as good things.
The authors of the book the Power of Bad suggest a general Rule of Four. It takes four good things to overcome one bad thing.
Where Does The Negativity Bias Come From?
Researchers believe the negativity bias is an evolutionary phenomenon formed as a protective mechanism so that species could continue to reproduce and not die off due to external threats.
For example, thousands of years ago, hunter-gatherers were always on the lookout for predators and had to rely on their instincts to determine potential threats within the environment. The negativity bias was essential in these moments to quickly get away from danger.
Over time, humans developed a prefrontal cortex which is sometimes coined the new brain, system 2 or the slow brain. It is the more rational part of our minds but the slower to “come online”.
System 1, our limbic system or fast brain, was established thousands of years ago, and trumps system 2 when it comes to processing feedback from our environment. It’s all about safety rather than rationality.
You can thank system 1 for your ability to quickly remove your hand from a hot stove or sharp object, but it’s also where your inner critic and irrational thoughts reside. It likes to keep the status quo.
When someone gives you a critique or insults you, it’s system 1 that processes this information as a threat and tries to keep you safe. Hence, why you might feel devastated or put down.
However, it’s system 2 that gives you a more rational perspective of the situation and allows you to take the emotion out of it and recognize that you are feeling poorly because your monkey brain views the comment as a threat to your existence.
You may feel bad about critiques, insults, or unpleasant situations because your brain is trying to keep you safe.
This is an error in thinking caused by the negativity bias. It doesn’t mean you are inadequate. You, my friend, are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.
When you find you are feeling bad about a situation, challenge the emotions you are feeling. More than likely you are feeling down because you are stuck in your monkey brain. You haven’t given your rational brain a chance to sift through the information
How To Overcome Negativity Bias?
You can’t turn off the negativity bias because your limbic system (system 1) is automatic. However, you do have the power to override negative, irrational impulses. So what does that mean?
The prefrontal cortex (system 2) can’t catch what it doesn’t detect. Therefore, recognizing that negativity bias exists is the first step. Understanding when you fall into its trap the most is the other step.
From there, you can help your prefrontal cortex to sift through your knee-jerk responses by using one or more of these techniques.
When you experience something unpleasant or have thoughts of an unpleasant experience, use the power of mindful awareness. Become curious about how your body feels. Are you tense? Where are you feeling the tenseness? Do you have butterflies in your stomach?
Recognize that this is your limbic system eliciting a chemical response to the initial feedback it received. Give your prefrontal cortex time to kick on.
BELLY BREATHING (DEEP BREATHS)
Breathing is another great tool that is often overlooked and underrated. In our society we tend to take shallow breaths. Our lungs aren’t filled to their full capacity and we don’t get the full benefit of a deep, slow, purposeful inhale and exhale.
Next time you are faced with something unpleasant try this 4-7-8 breathing technique taught by Dr. Weil. I’ve been using this breathing technique for the past few years and can attest to the immediate and positive results you get.
A dose of daily gratitude does a mind good. Refocus negative thoughts and emotions by putting your energy into writing down what you are thankful to have in your life.
Be specific. Instead of “I’m thankful for my coworkers” try something like “I’m thankful that my coworkers helped look over my presentation notes.”
Writing or typing out what you are grateful for as well as being specific can greatly increase positive emotions.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
Play the devil’s advocate and tackle your negative thought like a movie. Run it all the way through to the end coming up with the worst-case scenario possible.
For example, let’s say your computer, your business lifeline completely stops working in the middle of the week. You have no backup and have other clients waiting to hear a response from you. You’re frantic and about to have a mini-meltdown.
Ask yourself what is the worst-case scenario and continue diving deeper until you feel you’ve reached the end of the worst-case scenario train.
It may look something like this:
I won’t be able to respond to my clients for a few days.
I’ll be at least two weeks behind on work.
All of my clients will fire me.
I’ll have no income to purchase a new computer.
I’ll have to completely close my business.
I’ll have to sell my house and live by the river in my car.
You get the idea. The point is to run your situation through all of the possible bad scenarios so you can dismantle the fear response and start eliciting solutions.
Another excellent tool is to find positive quotes or sayings that you find powerful and motivating. Post these on your mirror in your bathroom, as a screen saver on your phone, or posted on your computer at work.
Whenever you are feeling down about something, turn to these positive affirmations and read them or say them aloud at least three times.
Turn Insight Into Action
Let me know in the comments below if this was helpful and which strategy you plan to use.
Remember you have the power to overcome negative thoughts by focusing on the positive. Get off the automatic train and back in the driver’s seat.
- Carretié, L., Mercado, F., Tapia, M., & Hinojosa, J. A. (2001). Emotion, attention, and the ‘negativity bias’, studied through event-related potentials. International journal of psychophysiology: official journal of the International Organization of Psychophysiology, 41(1), 75–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0167-8760(00)00195-1
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383