Negativity Bias

Let’s admit it. We are oddly drawn to the dark side of life. The horror stories of senseless deaths such as people falling to their demise due to a selfie taken in the wrong place. I noticed that, despite the agitation I feel afterwards, I am drawn to read about and watch the news every day. What’s up with this? Well, it turns out there is a scientific reason for this. It is called the negativity bias. Yes—there is a biologically based reason for our unusual fascination with the misery in life.

What is the negativity bias? In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, it is defined as the tendency to be more affected by negative emotions/events than positive. In short, bad is more powerful than good. But wait-there is some good news in this. Once we are aware of this bias, there is a lot we can do to override it and even use it to our advantage. Below, I summarize the article written by the two authors of the recently released book—’The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It’ by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister.

Our brains tend towards negativity due to our survival mechanism.

Our brains tend towards negativity due to our survival mechanism. Having to survive in the wild, we evolved to be finely tuned to the dangers among us. Dangers that could get us killed. Those that survived passed on this hyper-sensitive gene to awareness of threats over the good. The challenge today is that we are overly focused on negativity even though we don’t have the constant threat of death. We can see this play out in a variety of ways: We take criticism much more seriously than praise. A single bad event can cause life-long trauma. There is no psychological term for the opposite of trauma because no good event has such a lasting impact. What’s worse, politicians and the media tap into our primal natures of fear and anxiety by hyping up the dangers in current events. We get easily convinced that doom is just around the corner – every night!

It certainly did not help that researchers have also been influenced by this natural negativity bias. So much so that they have been focused primarily on mental illness versus mental well-being. The result is that we all are well-versed in psychosis and depression but know precious little about the brain’s resiliency and the human capacity for happiness. Notice how familiar the public is with PTSD, yet we barely know anything about post traumatic growth, which is much more common than PTSD. Post traumatic growth is that most people who experience trauma, believe the experience made them stronger.

Are we doomed to live in misery with our magnetic attraction to it?

Are we doomed to live in misery with our magnetic attraction to it? Absolutely not! The good news is that we have power over this bias. With increased awareness, there is a lot we can do. Below is a list of just a few ways to override and/or work with our negativity bias:

  1. Guard your Behavior: the damage you do by bad behavior is much greater than the benefits of your good behavior. Better to guard yourself against outbursts, insults, betrayals, etc. As much as you can help it, do no harm in your relationships.
  2. Rule of Four: the negative effect or emotion has three times the effect of the positive. Therefore, to come out ahead, it takes four good things to overcome one bad (this is a rule of thumb). For example, if you are late to a meeting, you will need to be on time the next four meetings to make up for it. If you insult someone, you will have to pay that person four compliments. You get the picture.
  3. Put bad moments to good use: learn from the pain. Should you get a driving ticket, use it to become a safer driver. This is a lesson. Go to the driving school to re-learn safety and good driving techniques. See this ticket as a warning to avoid a possible future accident. It is a gift in disguise. The upside of the negativity bias, it can be a POWERFUL teacher.
  4. Capitalize on good moments: Share them with others (those that would be happy for you) and re-live them. Interestingly, psychologists have discovered that we tend to become happier with age because we get better at re-living and relishing the good moments in our past. Older people tend to spend less time worrying about the present and future.
  5. See the big picture: keep perspective. There is a tendency that the richer and more comfortable we become, the gloomier we get. The rich are the least informed about positive trends. For example, worldwide poverty has decreased significantly in the past decades, but the rich think it has gotten worse.

Print out the list above, commit it to memory and put it in your wallet. You will save yourself from years of misery and begin to see the beauty in your wonderful life!

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