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Negativity Bias- fact or debateable

Negativity Bias- fact or debateable

We know this intuitively, right? That the negative ‘bad stuff’ has a greater impact on us than ‘good news’ or positivity. Isn’t this the reason why the media is full of bad news stories? Because we pay far more attention to the tragedy than the ‘fireman rescue’s cat up a tree’, feel good stories? We seem addicted to negativity.

Research in psychology about our human negativity bias is bountiful and widely accepted. Why is it that we have evolved to focus on, ruminate, rinse and repeat our bad experiences in our brain, while skipping over the good? Is this a learned trait or is it something we are evolutionally wired to do?

At the university of Chicago, John Cacioppo, PhD, found that negative information shown to a participant resulted in the brains cerebral cortex ‘lighting up’ far more than when presented with ‘positive’ visual information. Other researchers describe how the part of the brain that regulates our emotions, the amygdala, is biased towards negativity and its storage into long term memory.

So, negativity is noticed more readily by the brain, and it sticks around longer in the brain’s memory. No wonder many of us struggle on a day to day basis with sadness, depression and other negative emotions.

How then does being biased towards negativity help us?

Researchers suggest that a lean towards a negative outcome historically kept us on high alert and predicted a better outcome for our survival. If we had paid attention only to the ‘good and happy’, we would be sitting ducks for predators and would have seen a short-lived evolutionary period. Focusing on the ‘bad stuff’ helped us to problem solve and keep ourselves safe.

Clearly there is a big difference between being on high alert for a mountain lion, and having the same neurological response occur in the brain when the store doesn’t have ‘your’ pair of shoes in ‘your’ size! Sadly, this seems to be a fact, and along with it comes the drama, sadness, upset, worry, anger, rumination; all over a pair of shoes.

Jennifer Corns at the University of Glasgow, School of Humanities, recently discussed Rethinking of the Negativity Bias (1). She argued that the definition and conclusion of the ‘bad is stronger than good’ approach is unclear and that alternative explanations should be considered. In conclusion we are challenged to consider that the ‘bad is stronger than good’ research perhaps does not offer us the fullness of explanation, oversimplifies and is ambiguous.

One of the many things discussed in this review is how we define and compare negative/bad and positive/good in terms of our responses. How does the pleasure (positive/good) of eating a cream bun compare to the stodgy feeling, guilt ridden (negative/bad) after effect? Which feeling has the biggest impact; is remembered longer? Many experiences can indeed be both a positive and negative experience simultaneously.

It is proposed that the information gathered from a negative event has a greater impact in comparison to a positive event, so perhaps rather than negativity bias are we actually talking about increased informational effects?

The impact of expectation also plays a part as ‘good’ interactions are expected in a relationship whereas ‘bad’ interactions are not. Corns uses the example of: “If my partner insults me, that may make a bigger impression on our relationship than when he gives me a hug—not because an insult is “bad” and a hug is “good” (however we might disambiguate ‘bad’ and ‘good’), but instead because I expect hugs from a romantic partner and I do not expect insults.” 

Even in non-intimate relationships our expectation is for positive interaction therefore it would make sense that any negative interaction would be unexpected and therefore cause increased stress.

So, as you can see, it is not as straight forward as humans being wired for negativity.

Regardless of the academic debate we have the power to lessen the impact of negative experience, see positives come out of the bad. As the old saying goes; every cloud has a silver lining. And as I say, every experience is a learning opportunity, as long as we pay attention, respond rather than react, and take the time to search for the silver.

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200306/our-brains-negative-bias
  2. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13164-018-0382-7

About The Author

Lisa Whiteman

Lisa Whiteman is founder and leader of the Resonance Group and is committed to making a difference in the world. Lisa believes we can all make a difference by ensuring our ethics and principles are at the very heart of everything we do, every day.

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