On Being One … And Of The Negativity Bias

negative-glassBecause of our evolution, our brains focus on negative outcomes rather than positive ones, referred to as a negativity bias. That is, our brains evolved to always assume the worst case scenario. This was a necessary survival skill for most of our history and, in some circumstances, still is. For a cave man, or woman, walking in a forest it was “safer” to assume that there was a predator, capable of killing them, behind every bush rather than assume that there wasn’t. In the first instance, they were prepared to either defend themselves or retreat to a safer environment (i.e., fight or flight instinctual response). In most instances, there was no such predator, but they were prepared… just in case. In the second instance, if there was a predator, they would have been taken unprepared and died. Survival, and hence ability to procreate, was assured by assuming the worst. Whether the worst happened or not was irrelevant.

The instinct to assume the worst has survived in all of us to this day. Some understand this instinct and, in most cases, are capable of controlling it. But it still rules most of us. Think of it as a program that is run by your computer (i.e., the brain) which you have the ability to code over. When we don’t, we overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. We also underestimate the resources available to us to fulfill opportunities and cope with threats.[1] The brain is also wired to acknowledge and accept information that confirms these threats (real or perceived), and ignore or reject information that doesn’t.

Moreover, because there are regions in the agmydala[2] which have evolved to prevent the unlearning of fear, it is difficult to reprogram our brains.[3] It is particularly difficult when these fears stem from childhood experiences.

Perhaps this explains why the phrase “We have to talk!” strikes such fear in the heart of most men who immediately assume the worst whether uttered by one’s boss or one’s partner. Instead of focusing on the very many happy, creative and successful events that have happened prior to this phrase having been uttered (or other similarly troubling events having happened), our brain immediately reverts to a fright mode and assumes the very worst. In most cases, the brain then shuts down to the message being communicated and instead seeks a potential solution to the many dire scenarios running through the brain. Though, in some cases, the “fear” is warranted, in most instances it is not. At the very least, you have no way of knowing for certain whether the fear is warranted. But you have assumed a fight or flight response which is unproductive to an open-hearted communication. In fact, it is interesting to note that most people will work harder at avoiding a loss than to obtain an equal gain. Put another way, most people will work harder to avoid losing $100 than gaining $100. It is a bias for which psychologist Daniel Kahnemann[4] won a Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences in 2002 (shared with Vernon L. Smith).

Having a negativity bias was instrumental in assuring the survival of our ancestors but is rather detrimental in our present-day environment, at least in most case. When we assume a worst case scenario, the agmydala gets activated and the hormone cortisol is released in preparation to flee or fight. Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone. This produces a cascading effect on our mental, emotional and physical state which leads to:

  • Insomnia
  • Slower metabolism
  • Weight gain
  • Poor concentration and resulting lower productivity, problem-solving abilities and creativity
  • Depression
  • Weakened immune response and hence more prone to illness

Because of this negativity bias, it takes many more positive inputs to overcome a negative one. This is particularly applicable to intimate relationships, where it takes at least five positive interactions for every negative one. In fact, according to the latest research on this subject, people thrive when positive events outweigh negative ones in a 3:1 ratio, known as the critical positivity ratio.[5] Most of us fail to achieve this ratio in our everyday life, including our relationships, mostly because we are not aware of this ratio and the effect of the negativity bias of our brain.

That is all good and well to know, but how do we reprogram our brain? How do we interrupt this negativity bias? And how do we do so in a way to permanently overwrite the primitive brain program? To do so requires us to disrupt the brain’s stress response. One way to do this is through gratefulness as this serves to shift our focus from the negative to the positive. Of course, this requires us to be aware of our emotional state at any given time. It is useful to check in with yourself throughout the day. When you find yourself constructing worse case scenarios, shift your attention to the things you can be grateful for. Some call this positive thinking, a concept pioneered by Norman Vincent Peale[6] more than half a century ago. According to Professor Barbara Fredrickson: “Positive emotions broaden [our] scope of attention, cognition and action, and build physical, intellectual and social resources.”[7] Another way is to set aside pleasing moments and experiences throughout your day instead of waiting for the big reward. Most of us hold out for big events such as birthdays, holidays, vacations, etc. to be happy. But because it takes a minimum of 3 positive events to overcome one negative event, it is best to schedule positive events throughout your day. For example, if you are a morning person who likes coffee, enjoy a steaming cup of your favorite coffee while watching the sunrise.  If you’re a bibliophile, set aside 15 minutes each day to read a book from your favorite author. If you’re stuck in a drab office environment, bring in fresh flowers to put some color around you. Whenever a negative incident happens, imagine it as a series of vignettes on a piece of paper. Then drop some black ink on it and spread it so as to mask all the images. Or take an eraser to the page until it is again blank. If it is something someone said, enclose the words in a balloon letting the words inflate the balloon and then release it into the air and watch it float away until it disappears (don’t do these last three while driving as it is best to close your eyes while doing them).  Finally, whenever you think about the worst case scenario, think about other realistic – and less dire – outcomes. There are many facets to each situation. Let your mind seek the best outcomes.

These small doses of positivity throughout the day will help your brain counteract its natural negativity bias.

See also: On Being One … And The Power Of Habits

As always, I welcome your comments and stay in love,

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[1]       See, Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Rick Hanson

[2]       The agmydala has been shown to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional reactions. See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala.

[3]       See, Hardwiring Happiness.

[4]       http://kahneman.socialpsychology.org/

[5]       See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_positivity_ratio

[6]       https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Vincent_Peale

[7]       http://www.positiveemotions.org/

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