Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?
You received positive feedback for something, perhaps a school assignment, your performance at work, your outfit, etc., but you find yourself fixating on the one or two criticisms?
Or maybe you had an intense argument yesterday, and you spend the week bitter and angry, despite it being an overall good week?
Have you done something embarrassing long ago, but the cringe-inducing memory remains fresh in your mind? Surely you have found yourself ruminating over a conversation you had with a friend or coworker, and a subsequent feeling of doom that you offended someone?
If any of these awkward encounters are relatable, you can rejoice because you have stumbled upon an article that offers solutions to the negativity bias. Even positive people have negativity biases.
Psychologists study negative bias to understand why humans obsess with what did not go well, especially for people whose overall situation is actually alright. Why worry incessantly, especially if we do not have to? This question begets further exploration as to why we are programmed to focus on negative aspects.
It’s in our evolutionary code, but that does not mean it has to define us.
What is Negativity Bias?
The negativity bias refers to the often asymmetrical way we perceive the negative and the positive.
Negative experiences exert a greater psychological impact on us than positive experiences, even when both events are equally “good or bad.” We tend to dwell on the “one thing” that did not go well rather than the ten things that did. For this reason, a moment of profound sadness is usually more disruptive to one’s day than an equal moment of happiness.
This bias explains why traumatic experiences linger longer and fester in our thoughts. Meanwhile, our most gleeful moments quickly fade into distant memories or are quickly zapped by one unpleasant encounter. It also explains why it takes more work to get away from a bad first impression than it takes to lower a good first impression.
So what is the point of negativity bias, since nearly all humans have it?
The Purpose of the Negativity Bias
This bias is a product of our evolution. It aided our ancestors in making intelligent decisions in high-risk situations, which in turn increased the likelihood of their survival long enough to pass their genes onto the next generation.
For example, imagine your evolutionary ancestors running away from a large and dangerous cat—their body will code that trauma differently. Despite all their calm days of mellow survival time in the grasslands, they will react strongly to the slightest bit of negative “saber-tooth-related” memories.
That memory that nearly resulted in their death, will help them avoid further saber-toothed cat situations.
The evolutionary and biological basis of negativity bias is supported by the findings of Vaish et al. (2008). These researchers found that infants, in the early stages of development:
“displayed a strong negativity bias in social referencing behavior as well as in discourse and memories about valenced events. The potential roots of this bias are evident by 7 months in infants’ attention to emotional expressions and emotional contagion.”
Neuroscientist Rick Hanson provides a straightforward explanation in his book Buddha’s Brain that explores this negativity focus. According to Hanson, our ancestors survived by approaching pleasant stimuli, like a carrot, and avoiding unpleasant stimuli, like an incoming stick.
They eventually began to discern that avoiding a stick, and subsequent injury or death, was far more important than picking a carrot. Why remember evert carrot-eating experience when one stick-in-the-eye is more devastating?
As a bias for negative stimuli developed, our brain structure slowly adapted. Over time, we became wired to pay more attention to negative information.
How We Can Overcome the Negativity Bias
It may have served our ancestors to focus on the negative, but in this modern age, we are not always helped by finding every fault or threat in our daily environment. If we are not worried about a saber-toothed cat stalking us, and there are no immediate or long-term threats, why does the snippy comment from a coworker impact us so deeply?
Essentially, how can we limit our pre-programmed negativity bias?
We are not able to undo evolutionary development, but we can restore balance in our lives by changing the way we interact with positive stimuli. Any work in this direction will strengthen our neurons in a way that fires more appreciation of carrot-situations (a reference to previous metaphor) rather than stick-situations.
Rick Hanson (2011) calls this process “taking in the good” and he recommends this three-step process. When used habitually, this process can alleviate the stress and pain that come with focusing on the bad.
3 Simple Steps to Overcome Your Negativity Bias
Practicing these three steps every day can turn it into a habit—and a great habit that can change your perception of each day.
Which of these three tips are you most likely to implement into your routine? Or which tips are not included that you recommend for others? We would love to hear your experience in our comments section below.
1. Look for Good Facts, and Turn them into Good Experiences.
Make a conscious effort to look for positive aspects of every experience. Take active measures to notice the good in both the world and in yourself. As you do this, pay attention to any resistance you encounter within yourself and acknowledge any instinctual attempts to dismiss or deny these positive feelings, but choose not to focus on them.
It can be as simple as dismissing the negative feedback you got regarding an idea at work or with a creative project and appreciating the two friends who support and understand your idea.
2. Savor the Experience.
Attend to positive experiences. Give yourself ample time (at least 20-30 seconds) to fully enjoy that moment. By elongating our positive sensations, we allow more neurons to fire and wire together in response to the stimulus. This solidifies the experience in our memory.
The next beautiful sunset or cloud formation—cliche example but an important one—what would happen if you stopped for 30 deliberate seconds to look away from your phone, and watch?
We are predisposed to collecting and clinging to negative memories, but we can counteract this by intentionally developing a more diverse stock of positive memories or moments of calm. As we fill our memory with more of these experiences, through the act savoring, we become less reliant on external positive stimuli that are directly about us.
3. Allow the Good Experience to Sink into You
This is where any mindfulness practice can come in handy, by becoming aware of the different ways that a positive experience affects you. Identify the emotions involved and visualize the positivity spreading throughout your body.
Consider the brain’s plasticity as neurons fire and wire together. When we consciously interact with our positive experiences, we can strengthen their neurological presence in our brains. If we evolved to benefit from negativity bias, but it no longer serves us, why not allow our brains to relax a little?
How and When Do Children Start to Develop a Negativity Bias?
Positive psychologists studying this topic want to understand how we change the way people view the world, starting with the views of children and the role of emotions like disgust.
Plenty of evidence shows the existence of this phenomenon in adults, but less research has studied its harmful impact on children. Vaish et al. (2008) sought evidence to explain how negativity bias emerges during development. The authors were interested in discovering at what age negativity bias began to emerge.
The authors’ research questions bring up the topic of nature versus nurture, since studying the emergence of a negativity bias can help elucidate whether negativity bias is inborn or taught.
Vaish et al. (2008) reviewed the available literature on negativity bias and found that one can, in fact, observe the emergence of negativity biases in children.
One example of this is a study that examined the use of language among young children. Researchers found that younger than 3-years-old used equal amounts of positive and negative words, while children older than 3-years-old used twice as many negative words as positive words (Lagatutta & Wellman, 2002).
This type of negativity bias has also been found in similarly-aged children in their recollection of past events, indicating that toddlers may remember negative events better than positive events of the same intensity (Fivush, 1991). Young children also seem to understand the causes of negative emotions better than the causes of positive ones (Lagatutta & Wellman, 2001).
Vaish et al. (2008) stress the importance of researchers ensuring that there is no difference in stimulus intensity when studying negativity bias. This is particularly relevant when studying negativity bias in children, as they may be more susceptible to these differences.
With controlled stimulus intensity, differences in the attention given to different types of stimuli can be more accurately attributed to the positive or negative values inherent in that stimuli. If stimulus intensity is not controlled, it can be a confounding variable in comparing the attention given to the positive and negative stimuli.
After finding evidence of negativity bias during development, Vaish et al. (2008) moved on to explore when this focus on the negative first emerges in children. While individual differences make it difficult to accurately determine at exactly what point in development a negativity bias emerges, the consensus is that it’s at a very young age.
According to certain experts in the field, this focus on the negative first emerges when children are between 6 months and 1 year old, with a tendency for it to emerge at about 7 months of age. This is evidenced by the fact that 5-month-old infants pay more attention to positive stimuli, while 7-month-old babies pay more attention to negative stimuli (Wilcox & Clayton, 1968; Ludemann & Nelson, 1988).
Negativity Bias: Nature Versus Nurture
As for the question of whether negativity bias is a matter of nature or nurture, there are clear evolutionary advantages to paying more attention to negative stimuli, particularly stimuli that could be threatening. This is evidenced by the fact that infants experience more fear as they start locomoting, which is around the same time that a fear of heights can develop (Campos et al., 1992).
While evolutionary advantages might make negativity bias seem like a matter of nature, there does seem to be an aspect of nurture involved in the development of negativity bias.
Campos et. al. (1992) claim that infants may experience more fear around this time because it’s when mothers start using more prohibitive words toward them. As the fears expressed by their parents are likely important to the child’s well-being, this specific attention to negative words is advantageous to their survival.
Another example of the role of nurture in negativity bias development can be seen among mistreated children. These children appear to pay even more attention to negative stimuli than children who have not been mistreated (Pollak et al., 2000). The fact that personal experience affects negativity bias indicates nurture is at least partially at play and that negativity bias isn’t completely based on inborn instinct.
Is All Negativity Bias the Same?
Vaish et al. (2008) point out an interesting distinction between levels of negativity bias, showing that the intensity of negativity bias varies depending on what emotion a stimulus elicits.
For example, fear, sadness, and disgust are all considered negative emotions. However, a closer look at these three negative emotions shows that they might not be so similar.
While it seems natural that fear is involved in evolutionary processes, it’s less likely that sadness is linked to a survival instinct. This raises the question of whether these emotions are based on learned behaviors. Teasing apart these differences could help to clarify where nature starts and nurture ends when influencing negativity bias development.
A great example of recent research into the different effects of nature and nurture on the development of judgment can be found by watching this TED Talk by David Pizarro.
In it, Pizarro explains his findings on the impact of disgust on political and social judgments.
A Take Home Message
In the face of fear and sadness, we can remind ourselves that our brains evolved to prefer negative experiences and store negative memories for our own survival. Remember ther carrots and sticks metaphor.
When various stimuli trigger such emotions, we can consider their validity and make active efforts to learn about the specific ways in which we interact with them. Hanson emphasizes the importance of accepting that negativity is an inherent part of the human experience, alongside practicing his steps mentioned above.
Rather than denying or bemoaning our negativity bias, he advises that we be mindful of it and always aim to better our understanding.
What is your first step in addressing negativity bias in your own life? We would love to hear from you in our comments section.
Want to know more?
To learn more about Rick Hanson and the work he is doing on Hardwiring Happiness you can check out this video or visit his website RickHanson.net.
Baumeister, R. F. (2001). Bad is Stronger than Good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4). doi:10.1037/e413792005-154
Bergeisen, M. (2010, September 22). The Neuroscience of Happiness. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_neuroscience_of_happiness
Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296-320. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0504_2
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. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383