Understanding Negativity Bias

Updated November 15, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The term “negativity bias” refers to the idea that we are more affected by or pay more attention to 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. It also refers to the human tendency of being more likely to characterize a day as bad overall if something bad happens during it, even if something equally good also happens.

Negativity bias explains why trauma can be so long-lasting, while happy moments may fade more quickly into distant memories. It can be why a bad first impression can be hard to overcome, yet a good first impression can be fragile and easy to ruin. It’s also why mudslinging is often a favored approach in political campaigns, rather than the practice of putting someone’s positive traits on display.

Having Trouble Letting Go Of Negative Experiences?

Evidence For Negativity Bias

John Cacioppo, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, conducted numerous studies involving negativity bias. In one study, 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 beaten face), and pictures of things that don’t typically evoke any feelings at all (like blow dryers or dishes). He recorded electrical activity in the brain after each one and found that it was highest in response to the negative stimuli. His inference is that our moods and attitudes are more affected by sad, angering, or terrifying news than they are by good news. It’s one example from a significant body of research that supports the human bias toward negativity.

Where Does Negativity Bias Come From?

Researchers have found evidence of the negativity bias in infants as young as three months old because it’s innate—a product of evolution that stems from a crucial survival instinct that kept our human ancestors alive and safe. It helped them make the smartest decisions in dangerous situations, increasing the possibility that they’d live long enough to reproduce. While modern humans need to rely on this instinct far less often, it’s still an impactful element of the way our brains work.

In his book Buddha’s Brain, neuroscientist and psychologist Rick Hanson details the origins of the negativity bias. He describes 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 carrots. Over time, they learned that it was more important to avoid a stick that might be flying at their heads than it was to stay put to try and pick the carrots they were after. The result was a tendency to pay more attention to negativity because of the dangers that may be associated with it.

Overcoming Negativity Bias

Negativity bias is part of how we’re wired—so can it be changed? The answer is yes, with some caveats. It’s likely that it can never be completely erased; however, with time, effort, practice, and patience, you may be able to adjust this tendency. The book written by Rick Hanson and referenced above contains a three-step plan that may help you relieve the stress that can come from always focusing on the negative parts of life. The steps are:

  1. Look For The Good. Becoming aware of and acknowledging the positivity in our lives—even when it exists alongside negativity—is the first step in this process. Also, pay attention to any resistance you feel as you make this shift to increase awareness.
  2. Savor The Good. Next, practice taking 20–30 seconds to breathe deeply and enjoy when a positive experience arrives, giving your brain the chance to solidify the good memory. Over time, this practice may help it be more attracted to positive stimuli.
  3. Visualize Positive Neural Connections. Finally, it may help to create a mental image of the positive neurons in our brains firing and fusing together as we focus on positive emotions and experiences.

Other research has found that practicing mindfulness can help reduce negativity bias over time, and another study suggests that negativity bias simply becomes less powerful or apparent with age. There are several different approaches you can take to alter negative thinking patterns. Commitment over time to whichever practice(s) you choose is generally key.

Remember, eliminating negativity bias altogether generally isn’t possible, so holding yourself to this standard won’t be helpful. It’s usually better to exist somewhere in between the two extremes: not beating yourself up for focusing on the negative sometimes, but not giving up and wallowing in it too much either. It’s also important to remember that toxic positivity isn’t the goal, either, which involves unrealistically repressing or otherwise ignoring valid feelings altogether. It’s perfectly normal to feel hurt, upset, or affected in some other way by a negative experience. The practice of overcoming negativity bias simply invites us to not let the negativity take over, and to remind ourselves of the positive that exists around us, too.

Negativity Bias And Depression

While negativity bias is part of how humans are wired, people with depression may have an even harder time recognizing the positive or preventing the negative from clouding their entire outlook. One study found that people with depression can identify sad facial expressions more accurately than those who do not have depression, for example, which is one study of several that points to the idea that negativity bias may be stronger in those experiencing this mental health condition. However, other research has found that this effect is temporary and can decrease when other symptoms of depression do. It’s just one reason that seeking the appropriate treatment for a mental health condition like depression can be impactful and important.

Seeking Help In Reducing Negativity

Some negativity bias is natural, but a focus on negativity that becomes constant, overwhelming, or all-consuming can be difficult to deal with. Seeking the guidance of a trained therapist can help you find a more comfortable middle ground. If a strong focus on negativity is due to a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, they may be able to help you develop strategies for managing symptoms. They can also assist you in creating and practicing tactics for reframing situations, reforming thought patterns, and focusing a bit more on the positive and a bit less on the negative.

Since it’s now possible to connect with a therapist from home, more people are choosing to seek treatment via online therapy. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a trained therapist who you can meet with via phone call, video call, and/or chat. Research suggests that this format offers similar benefits to in-person sessions, so it’s one option for those who prefer it for accessibility or comfort reasons.

Having Trouble Letting Go Of Negative Experiences?

Takeaway

The tendency to place an outsize focus on negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences is part of how we’re wired, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work toward tempering it. With the help of the strategies listed here, you may be able to train yourself into a more positive mindset over time.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.