The Negativity Bias: What it is and How to Overcome it
Negativity is instinctual in humans. We have an innate predisposition to pay more attention and give more weight to negative experiences: that is, when equal measures of good and bad are present, the psychological effects of bad ones outweigh those of good ones. This psychological principle is known as the negativity bias; it manifests itself in our everyday life, affecting our memory, perception, state of mind, and beliefs.
With this post, I have set out to examine the science behind the brain’s negativity bias, specifically what it can tell us about our own human nature.
The Story of The Carrot and the Stick
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson uses the analogy of a carrot and a stick to illustrate how the negativity bias evolved and built up in our brain. At one time, our ancestors had to make critical decisions several times a day: approach a carrot (reward) or avoid a stick (threat.) Both choices represented an important decision because there’s a key difference between pursuing carrots and ducking sticks, “If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever.” For that reason, our ancestors had to be hyper-vigilant if they wanted to succeed in passing on their genes. Consequently, we evolved to overestimate threats and to underestimate opportunities. The only problem is that our ancient circuitry is superfluous as we no longer face these threats that our brain evolved to respond to with heightened sensitivity and vigilance—this can and does cause us problems in everyday situations.
Bad is Stronger Than Good
To measure how the negativity bias affects our evaluations, psychologist John Cacioppo conducted a study where he showed pictures to the participants that were known to arouse positive feelings, pictures known to arouse negative feelings, and pictures known to arouse neutral feelings. The results from the study revealed that electrical activity in the participant’s brain (cerebral cortex) was stronger towards the negative stimuli than compared to the neutral or positive stimuli. So on a neurological level, our body reacts more intensely to negative stimuli; accordingly, negative stimuli gets more attention and processing.
Why Negative Experiences Are Easier to Remember
The negativity bias not only affects how we process information, but, also, affects how we register and remember our experiences. Rick Hanson, who I mentioned earlier, analogised the brain to “Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive experiences.” To understand why this is the case, we must focus on what is known as our implicit memory. Implicit memory is defined as “a type of memory in which previous experiences aid in the performance of a task without conscious awareness of these previous experiences.” Every day, we rely on our implicit memory in the form of procedural memory; it allows us to walk, ride a bicycle, or tie our shoes, all without consciously thinking about how to do any of them. It turns out negative experiences are registered immediately by our implicit memory, whereas, it’s estimated to take five to twenty seconds for our brains to even begin to register positive experiences. And furthermore, we need to think about positive events for longer for them to be processed and transferred to our long-term memory.The key to positive experiences then is not just to have more, but to let them sink in by thinking about them.
How to Overcome the Negativity Bias
So to recap, here are the two key insights gleaned from my research about the negativity bias:
•We react and give more attention to negativity, in whatever way, shape, or form
•We can remember and recall negative experiences with ease, but we must actively work to remember and recall positive experiences
Despite our brain’s pernicious attachment to negativity, I believe an increased awareness and cogency of the principle, along with the two practices that I am about to share, can help to provide us with the means to resist, and even overcome, our natural predisposition.
Also, as Robert Wright argues in The Moral Animal, just because something is a product of natural selection, it’s not to say it’s unchangeable: “any manifestation of human nature can be changed, given an apt alteration of the environment.” And I may add, an adpt alteration of the mind.
How can you expect to enjoy and fully appreciate what you’re doing in the moment if you’re preoccupied with stress and worry about all the things you have to do? The short answer is that you can’t. This problem can be solved by one practice: mindfulness, a mental relaxed awareness of the present.
As I have covered already, our brain is vigilant, it reacts to every problem, every stressor, every worry. These problems, however, exist entirely in the mind. The act of being present can help to eliminate these problems—or at least postpone them—by freeing up your mind; allowing you to instead focus on your experience in the moment, leaving everything else to fade away into obscurity. The beauty of the practice is that you can practice every day, wherever and whenever (meditation is my favourite way of practicing).
Leo Babauta of Zen Habits covers everything you need to know about being present in his article The Amazing Power of Being Present. I would highly suggest you start there.
“If a fellow isn’t thankful for what he’s got, he isn’t likely to be thankful for what he’s going to get.” – Frank A. Clark
I want you to imagine for a moment that you’ve just lost some of the things that are most important to you, things that you feel you couldn’t live without: your home, your sight, your hearing, your ability to walk, your best friend. Then, I want you to imagine that slowly you begin to get each one of these things back, one by one. Just think about how grateful you would be for each and every one? The message is simple: we tend to take for granted what we already have. We’re victims of a culture where achievement takes precedence over appreciation. Every time we achieve something, we’re inclined to ask “what now?”
How can we expect to truly appreciate life when we’re primed to remember and experience the negative more intensely? The practice of appreciation every single day. As I discussed earlier, it takes longer for our positive experiences to be registered in our implicit memory. Shifting our focus to looking for things to be grateful for can prolong our positive experiences by allowing us to savour them and remind ourselves of their existence, and over time we can begin to register them in our implicit memory.
There are many ways to practice gratitude. One of the most common methods—and my favourite—ways to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal, writing down a list of things that you’re grateful for each morning or evening before bed.
You can also combine this practice of gratefulness with learning to be present by practicing gratitude in the moment. Throughout your day, try to find moments to pause and remind yourself of the things you’re grateful for. I like to do this when drinking my morning cup of coffee.
Remember, Happiness is a practice.
Thank you for reading.