Navigating our brains negativity bias
You know the feeling, it’s your work appraisal and although your boss showers you with praise, you can’t help but fixate on the one comment where they suggested there was room for improvement. Or maybe you’re stuck ruminating about that social faux pas you made years ago in front of your friends? Turns out, our tendency to focus on the negative, does not make us the Eeyore of our social circles, but is in fact an innate human habit which psychologists refer to as the negativity bias.
Effectively this means that negative events tend to have a greater impact on our minds than more positive ones. The phenomenon explains why we can continue to experience trauma years after a traumatising event, and why we dwell on experiences of rejection rather than times we experienced feelings of immense love. But, now we know our brains are leading us down the dark path of difficult memories, what exactly can we do to change course and direct it towards lighter, more happier times?
We are all negative Nancys (no offence, Nancy)
Research has shown that throughout their lives and in many psychologically distinct situations, people focus more on the negative as they try to make sense of the world. Not only do we pay more attention to our more uncomfortable experiences than more enjoyable ones, we also use negative information more frequently to make decisions than we do with positive information. What’s more is that research has demonstrated that we are more motivated to complete a task by the thought of what would happen if we don’t (the negative) than what we would gain if we do (the positive). For example, say you’re fresh out of university- the fear of being forever unemployed, rather than landing your dream job, is (for most of us) going to be the thought which fuels our 5-a-day job application stints. Which is all the evidence we need to support our theory that dogs are so much better than people...
But what made us this way?
Our tendency to focus on the negative whilst we brush aside the more positive experiences, researchers consider to be an evolutionary overhang. Early on in human history, paying attention to the more negative aspects of life (woolly mammoths, poisonous food, sexual competitors) was essential for our survival. So the theory goes, those who paid more attention to imminent threats were more likely to survive; meaning that the more vigilant or negatively-focused genes were passed down to us. Fast forward a few thousand years to today, and our tendency to dwell on the negative, doesn’t seem quite as relevant for our survival.
How does the negativity bias impact our lives?
Given its prevalence throughout our thought process and emotional lives, it’s unsurprising that the negativity bias affects many aspects of our lives. As we are more likely to overemphasise the importance of challenging experiences in the decision-making process, this has a profound impact on the types of choices and levels of risk we are willing to undertake, according to research by the nobel prize-winning psychologists Tverskey and Kahneman. The negativity bias can also be seen to have a less-than-positive impact on our romantic relationships. If we’ve had bad experiences in past relationships it can mean we’re likely to dwell on these and come to expect the worst in our current partner/s. This negative framing can also add fuel to the fire when it comes to disagreements, as anticipating our partner’s poor response to, say, their perceived allergy to the washing basket, might put us on the defensive from the get-go when it comes to communicating that we just want them to pick up their dirty socks! Romantic relationships aside, the negativity bias is also believed to strike at the core of our political beliefs, informing how likely we are to tip us in one political direction or the other. So from the minor domestic politics of our daily lives, to the slightly more significant shifts in political appetite on a global scale, the negativity bias does seem to seep into every crevice of our lives.
So can we and should we change?
If we were to be fatalistic about it, we’d say that we’re simply programmed this way, so why fight human nature? Indeed, researchers show that from as young as three months old humans seem to have a predisposition to negative thinking. And yet, thanks to our brain’s neuroplasticity, we are absolutely capable of altering the way we think, to focus more on positive experiences, that make us feel joyful, free and awe-inspired (aka be more like dogs).
One helpful way of thinking about it can be surmised by the well known tale (of unknown origin) about the two wolves:
An elder was teaching his young grandson about life.
"A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It’s a terrible fight and it’s between two wolves. One is bad- he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt and ego.
The other is good- he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
His grandfather replied; “This same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too."
The boy thought about it for a minute and then asked,
"Which wolf will win?"
The elder simply replied,
"The one you feed.”
How can we feed the good wolf?
Savour the sweet: to redress the balance between positive and negative in our brains, you can take extra care to savour the sweeter experiences. Whether this is making a gratitude journal, or simply making sure when something good happens, you really capture the, so that you can later recall the sounds, smells and tastes in that happy moment.
Reframe your pain: that’s not to say plaster a smile on, grit and bear it. Instead it’s about, recognizing that because we’re naturally more prone to picking out the bad bits, turning challenging experiences on their head by asking ourselves what you learned from them, how they can help us moving forward or who was there to help us during them, can be a good way to get that good wolf howling.
Break the habit: how many times would can we honestly say ruminating about a bad experience actually made us feel better about it? Approximately -10? Next time we catch ourselves, we can try a grounding activity that stops us going round in circles; something as simple as a nice walk can be a good way to blow away those cobwebs.