We are biologically wired to focus more on negative events than positive, something called “negativity bias.” Why? Because our inherent need to survive relies on attending to possible dangers in our environment so we can immediately respond to protect ourselves–such as fight, flight, or freeze.
The stress hormones released when we encounter potential danger is adaptive and provides us with the energy to fight or run away. According to Harvard Medical School, however, if we tend to overreact to life’s stressors in the absence of real threat, our system is flooded with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which are not processed and become harmful over time. Chronic stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and obesity. In his book BodyWHealth, Roddy Carter, M.D. discusses how excessive amounts of cortisol also increases inflammation and weakens our immune system, thereby opening the door to infection and cancer. It is also important to note that the biological tendency toward negative thinking during times of stress is often magnified and perpetuated if one is experiencing depression or anxiety.
Research conducted by John Cacioppo, Ph.D, et al. showed increased electrical activity in the brains of participants when exposed to negative pictures compared to positive and neutral pictures. We feel negative events more strongly than positive events. Other research has shown that negative events are efficiently stored in memory so they can be easily retrieved during the next threatening situation. Positive memory storage either does not occur or is buried, making retrieval more difficult.
Here are a few real life examples of how someone could perceive a situation with a negative bias.
You receive your annual review, which consists of “exceeds expectations” in three out of four categories, and “meets expectations” in the fourth category.
Negative bias: You disregard the “exceeds expectations” ratings and focus on the “meets expectations” because you view it as a failure, which fuels your self-doubt. Alternatively, you might be angry with your boss, which could negatively affect your relationship and/or job.
Solution: Reframe the negative into the positive. Tell yourself to be proud of getting an “exceeds expectations” rating in all but one category. Take the feedback your boss gave you on the “meets expectations” category as being constructive, not critical. Your boss most likely wants you to be as successful as possible. No one is perfect..everyone can learn and grow. Tell your ego to move over to make room for improvement.
Your spouse/partner has not followed through with something important you have discussed for months. The deadline is approaching. You are a planner, and your partner procrastinates.
Negative bias: You are frustrated and resentful. You focus on all of your partner’s flaws, unable to see any of your partner’s positive qualities.
Solution: Reframe the negative into the positive. Remind yourself that you and your partner have different ways of approaching and handling situations. Have a calm and non-accusatory discussion with each other about how to solve the problem. No need for blaming. You are partners who should be working together, not against each other.
You have lost your job and are having difficulty finding another. You are sad, scared, and discouraged.
Negative bias: You tell yourself you are a failure, no one will hire you, and you will end up losing everything.
Solution: Reframe the negative into the positive. Remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments. Examine what could have been done differently. Learn from any lessons you can identify. Get more training if need be, think outside the box, believe in yourself. Life is fraught with situations we don’t agree with or understand, situations we think are unfair, only to find out later that the situation was a blessing because it led you to a more satisfying situation. It can be a step on your path to a better fit.
Here are three different ways of addressing negativity bias:
1) Reframe your thoughts.
Stop the negative self-talk. Look for a positive message or an alternative way of viewing the situation. Counter each negative self-statement with a positive one.
Generate a list of positive self-affirmations to replace recurring negative self-defeating thoughts.
2) Engage in five positive interactions for every negative one.
Psychologist and marital satisfaction expert Dr.John Gottman determined through his research with couples that couples can increase their marital satisfaction by engaging in five positive interactions for every one negative interaction.
We can apply this 5:1 ratio to any other relationships, such as parent-child interactions and supervisor-employee interactions.
3) Draw upon self-care and relaxation techniques to help release negative thoughts and emotions, and to recover from the flight/fight/freeze response
*Deep breathing *Exercise *Visualization *Meditation *Yoga *Massage *Fun activities/hobbies *Socialization
To summarize, humans are hardwired to look out for danger so we can remain safe in the world. In turn, we tend to focus more on negatives than positives. Chronic stress, depression, and anxiety magnify this effect. If our pattern is to view ourselves and others through a critical and fear-based lens, we harm our emotional and physical well-being. Our relationships and jobs can suffer.
Use these tools to counter negativity bias: 1) reframe negative thoughts into positive; 2) engage in five positive thoughts/behaviors for every negative one; and 3) use relaxation and self-care techniques to release negative thoughts and emotions.
Change your lens. Look for and focus on the flowers. Clear away the weeds. You will live a happier and healthier life.
Dr. Maridee Hunter is a Clinical Psychologist and Life Coach who practices in Orange County and North County San Diego.