Negativity Bias: What Is it, How do we Overcome It

The negativity bias is something I actually find so fascinating. I know for certain that I personally remember distinctly a criticism from a teacher that was made back in 2007 but will be unlikely to remember my boyfriend telling me I look beautiful this morning.

I thought that this was just a case of “you’re too hard on yourself” – i.e. I’ll use those criticisms to make sure I am a “better” human being and to avoid making those same mistakes again. I thought that this was limited to perhaps just a very small proportion of us, but it turns out that whilst some are even more predisposed to thinking in this way, we ALL have a negativity bias.

Truthfully, nastiness just makes a bigger impact on our brains, so nastiness is what we remember. I’ve done some digging.

A study done by John Cacioppo, Ph.D demonstrated the way in which our brains reacts to positive and negative stimuli. He showed people pictures known to arouse positive feelings (say, a Ferrari, or a pizza), those certain to stir up negative feelings (a mutilated face or dead cat) and those known to produce neutral feelings (a plate, a hair dryer). Meanwhile, he recorded electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex that reflects the magnitude of information processing taking place.

The brain, Cacioppo demonstrated, reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. As a result, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by the bad news than the positive news.

Of course, the reason behind this is a clear picture of us evolving to avoid danger.

When this outdated and rarely needed “danger alerting system” starts to impact our day-to-day thoughts and our communications within intimate relationships – THAT is when we come  a cropper.

Here’s the thing. When you apply this to a married couple for example, as a result of the disproportionate weight of negative communication, the balance between 1 argument and 1 loving moment does not mean a 50-50 equilibrium. Researchers have carefully charted the amount of time couples spend fighting vs. interacting positively. The result of their research indicated that a very specific ratio exists between the amount of positivity and negativity required to make married life satisfying to both partners. That magic ratio is five to one. As long as there was five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there was negative, researchers found, the marriage was likely to be stable over time.

So how do we overcome the Negativity Bias?

Okay, so we have clarified that this negativity bias isn’t exactly doing us the world of good in 2018.

Whilst we are unable to undo evolutionary developments, we can try and combat it by changing the way we take on positive stimuli. The following three steps were developed by Rick Hanson (2011) which is a process of “taking in the good”. When we use these 3 steps habitually, we can alleviate the stress and discomfort that accompanies processing the “bad stuff”.

3 Simple Steps to Remember “The Good Stuff”

1. “Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences.”

Make looking for positive aspects of every experience part of your character. When we choose to notice the good in both the world and in ourselves on a daily basis, at least a dozen times a day, we will end up cultivating a habit of accepting the positive stimuli more and more.

2. “Savor the experience.”

When we do notice something positive, perhaps the sky looking a particularly pretty shade of blue, try to give yourself enough time to really absorb the moment. Giving ourselves ample time (at least twenty to thirty seconds) to fully enjoy that moment elongates our positive sensations. This basically means that we allow more neurons to fire/wire together in response to the positive stimulus, solidifying the experience in our memory. As we fill our memory with more positive experiences, through savouring, we become less reliant on external positive stimuli.

3. “Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you.”

Self-awareness is key for this one, and mindfulness practise can help us develop this skill. Trying to take note of how the positive stimulus is making us feel (taking note of the emotions evoked within us) is another way of solidifying the positive experience. Visualising the positivity spreading through our body may sound a little hippy dippy but if it helps to counteract the next, inevitable negative encounter – then it’ll be worthwhile.

To wrap it up…

Developing the above three practises as part of a daily habit takes time… after all, we have evolved to prefer and store the negative experience and just disregard the positive ones.  Even just being mindful that our brain performs in this way can set us on the right path to actively counteract it with paying attention to the positivity that surrounds us.

A huge part of my personal recovery has been an acceptance that negativity is unavoidable (groundbreaking stuff, Jess). Understanding this, instead of denying this, has worked wonders in the way in which I choose to respond to negative stimuli in the face of fear or sadness. A little bit of self-compassion and understanding can go a long way

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