Understanding Negativity Bias
By Sarah Fader
Updated February 13, 2020
Reviewer Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P
You can probably still remember the bully, by first and last name, which tortured you in high school. But do you remember the name of the girl who lent you a pencil in sixth-grade math class, when you otherwise wouldn't have been able to take the test without one? Even if you do remember that girl's name, the chances are good that you remember the bully more vividly, as the event happened only yesterday.
The term "negativity bias" refers to the idea that we are more affected by the negative experiences in our lives than the positive ones. In other words, we tend to remember the bad things more often and more strongly than we remember the good. If we have something terrible happen to us on any given day, it is more likely that we will characterize the day as a bad day, even if something equally good happens during that same day.
Negativity bias is the explanation for why trauma lasts longer for us and plagues our thoughts, while happy moments are quick to fade and become a distant memory. This is also why a bad first impression is incredibly hard to overcome, yet a good first impression is fragile and easy to ruin. Negativity bias is also the reason why mudslinging is more effective in a political campaign than putting someone's positive traits on display.
Why Do We Have A Negativity Bias?
We can't escape negativity bias, as it is a product of evolution. Our ancestors relied on their negativity biases to make the smartest decisions in dangerous situations. This increased the possibility that they would live long enough to mate and pass on their genetics.
Experts have found that negativity biases can be detected in babies as young as seven months old. Those babies studied exhibited a strong negativity bias that could be observed in the attention they paid to others' emotions and expressions, and they would then react accordingly. For instance, a baby who saw his mother crying might become inconsolable and stay in that state for a long time. However, the same baby may see and share in his mother's joy, but his happiness is only fleeting, and he returns to a status quo emotional state after only a short period.
Neuroscientist and psychologist Rick Hanson wrote a book entitled Buddha's Brain, which detailed the effects of the negativity bias. In the book, Hanson described how our ancestors were able to survive by subconsciously avoiding things that could be dangerous, like sticks, and allowing themselves to be drawn to stimuli that could aid them in survival, like a carrot. They ultimately learned that it was more important to avoid a stick that might be flying at their heads that it was to stay put and try to pick the carrots they were after.
Our ancestors' negativity bias continued to develop and, as a result, we have been wired to pay more attention to negativity, or things that may be dangerous, than to positivity, which offers less of imminent concern.
Confirming Negativity Bias
John Cacioppo, Ph.D., a researcher with Ohio State University, conducted studies wherein he showed the subjects pictures that would make them happy (like a new car, or a pizza), pictures that would make them sad or scared (like a dead animal, or the face of a person who has taken a beating), and pictures of things that don't really cause us to feel anything at all (like blow dryers and dishes). He then recorded the brain's activity after being exposed to the different stimuli.
Cacioppo found that the brain had a far stronger reaction to negative stimulus, its electrical activity going crazy. This translated to mean that our moods and attitudes are more affected by sad, angering, or terrifying news than they are by good news.
Marriages are a good litmus test for negativity bias tests. For instance, happy couples differ from miserable couples in that their positive and negative feelings toward each other are unbalanced. Even couples who are constantly at each other's throats can still have a healthy and considerably happy marriage if they show each other just as much love and compassion. These are also the couples who can pick up on when their spouses need positive reinforcement, and then offer it.
However, in a marriage "balance" doesn't mean "50/50," as you might expect. Here, balance refers to the amount of time a couple spends arguing with each other versus the amount of time they spend interacting positively with one another.
The ratio that researchers have come up with certainly doesn't seem very balanced at 5 to 1, but when you think about it, it makes sense. As long as there is five times as much positivity in the relationship as there is negativity, then the marriage is likely to go the distance. Conversely, couples who were destined for divorce were not doing enough positive things for each other to effectively compensate for the negative that festered and grew. In other words, a surprise bouquet or a big spread at Christmas does not compensate for months of arguing.
It is also important to remember that it doesn't matter what is done insofar as a positive activity, but the frequency with which it is done. If you only talk with your partner about what's bothering him once a week, this won't help him as much as if you let him vent a couple of times a week, for instance. Frequent positive reinforcement is effective at tipping the balance toward a happier relationship.
Overcoming Negativity Bias
Negativity bias is like an appendix: while it may have provided some usefulness, in this day and age, it may not be as necessary for us to hang onto as it once was. Surely, we are not in constant danger, so it doesn't do us any good to focus on and hold onto the negatives. However, if this reaction is encoded into our DNA, is there any way to fight it? Can we possibly rid ourselves of our negativity bias as a species?
Unfortunately, there's no way for us to reprogram our brains to turn off our negativity biases. However, we can work toward changing our way of thinking. Hanson has designed a three-step plan that can aid you in overcoming your negativity bias. He calls it "taking in the good," and he believes that mastering this process and implementing it regularly can help relieve the stress that comes from always focusing on the negative things in life.
Rick Hanson's 3-Step Plan to Overcome Our Negativity Biases
The first step in Rick Hanson's three-step plan to overcome our negativity biases requires us to look for the good in every situation actively and to use those aspects of the event to change our mind to believe that the situation as a whole was a good one.
Hanson recommends that as you try to notice the positive actively, you should also pay attention to any resistance you may put up to such a maneuver. It is important to be able to recognize when our instincts tell us to ignore our positive feelings, as we can then actively choose not to fight those happier emotions.
As for Hanson's next tip, he recommends that you remain at the moment when it comes to a positive experience, or "savor" it. He wants you to take between twenty and thirty seconds just to take a deep breath and fully enjoy the moment. By actively lengthening our happier moments, we allow a more significant portion of our brain to respond to and drink at that moment, and this allows the brain time to create a positive response, thereby giving the positive thoughts the chance to solidify in our memory.
Our brains are naturally wired to collect and hang on to the memories that upset us, but we can nip that activity in the bud by actively creating a more tethered foundation of positive memories in our minds. As we practice this, and as our minds continue to fill up with more positive experiences than negative ones, we learn to rely less on positive stimuli in our environment and more on the positives we develop in our heads.
As for the third and final step in Hanson's plan, he suggests that we imagine our brains working toward the positive. Take note of the emotions you feel when you're trying to focus on the happy. Close your eyes and imagine the positive neurons in your brain firing and fusing together. By being conscious of our positive experiences and interacting with them, Hanson believes we can strengthen our presence in the current moment - and make it a good one to boot.
Accept Your Negativity…Then Change It
Another suggestion made by Rick Hanson is that we don't beat ourselves up for our negativity biases. After all, they're hard-wired in us. They're natural and normal. But just because they're natural and normal, that doesn't mean that we need to roll with it and allow ourselves to be Negative Nancy all the time.
When faced with a situation that scares or saddens us, we need to remind ourselves that this is perfectly natural, that the brain has evolved to prefer sadness over happiness, terror over calm, so that we have negative emotions and memories at the ready to better our chances of survival. It is important to accept and understand that negativity bias is a part of who we are. If we were to remain in denial about it or try to ignore it, how would we be able to work on fixing it?
Negativity bias also plays a part in why depression lasts longer for some folks than for others, and why it may be harder for them to overcome it. If you are struggling with depression, please consider reaching out to one of our BetterHelp counselors for assistance. Our counselors are skilled at helping folks just like you create a treatment plan that can help them overcome their depression and achieve happiness once again.