Your Brain Has a Negativity Bias

A study of negativity bias in the English language has found that there are more negative emotional words (62 percent) than positive words (32 percent) in the English dictionary.

Have you ever been kissed by a giraffe? Had your hair dyed a nice shade of red by orphaned elephants playing in red soil? Been involved in a Water buffalo stand-off? Had a dip in a geothermal spa? Me neither. Until last week that is.

Last week I got to play hostess and tourist. I got to see my country through the eyes of a friend who was visiting it for the first time. I am not one given to the comforts of complaining but it’s not always a battle I win.

Any place one chooses to reside in can produce much to complain about but it can also give you much to be proud of and much to fall in love with. Repeatedly. I tend to forget this and in an effort to understand why I learned that my brain (and yours too) has a negativity bias.

Negativity bias is the name given by psychologists to the human tendency to be much more likely to be influenced by and to recall negative experiences, instead of neutral or positive experiences. It was first documented by psychologists Roy F. Baumister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer in an article titled “Bad is Stronger than Good”.

The Science

Studies conducted by John Cacioppo Ph.D., then at Ohio State University, now at the University of Chicago showed that our attitudes are more heavily influenced by bad news than good news.

The study involved showing people three types of images.

  • Images known to arouse positive feelings (say, a Ferrari, or a pizza).
  • Images certain to stir up negative feelings (a mutilated face or dead cat).
  • Images known to produce neutral feelings (a plate, a hair dryer).

As these images were being reviewed, Cacioppo and his colleagues recorded electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex that reflects the magnitude of information processing taking place. Their findings revealed a greater surge in the brain’s electrical activity when viewing stimuli it deemed negative.

Before you threaten your brain please know that its tendency towards the negative is a result of evolution geared towards our survival more than anything else. It’s what helped our ancestors to stay alive.

Dr. Rick Hansen, in his book “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” describes our ancestors as living in a world of carrots and sticks. Carrots being rewards (food, sex, shelter) and sticks being punishment (predators, disease, injury). He writes that “Over hundreds of millions of years, it was a matter of life and death to pay extra attention to sticks, react to them intensely, remember them well, and over time become even more sensitive to them.”

Left unchecked, the negativity bias can become a serious impediment to our productivity, happiness and quality of life. Here are some strategies to keep it at bay.

1. Dr. Rick Hanson recommends that we should always be mindful of the degree to which our brain is wired to make us afraid. He also encourages building an awareness of the forces around us that beat the “drum of alarm.”  When you know the immense power of negativity, you’ll be less likely to invite it into your environment. This goes for things as well as people. He cautions though against donning rose colored glasses or sticking one’s head in the sand.

2. Make it a point to take a moment to savor positive experiences. No matter how small. By doing so you engage fully in the experience and are conscious and mindful of its every detail. This will help you create an area of refuge” a strategy recommended below.

3. Gretchen Rubin—owner of “The Happiness Project”–recommends that you create an “area of refuge” in your brain. A place you can think of whenever you find your mind wandering to a negative memory. That “area of refuge” can be made up of good memories, inspiring quotes, or lines from poems etc.

4. Keep a gratitude journal. By focusing on the good you’ll gradually be rewiring your brain for happiness. Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, and a leading expert in positive psychology offers several tips on keeping a gratitude journal. Some tips include focusing on people rather than things. Savoring surprise events. And writing in your journal only once or twice per week, but writing with depth.

5. Practice realistic optimism. This tip comes from Tony Schwartz, chief executive officer of The Energy Project. He recommends telling yourself the most hopeful and empowering story possible about any given circumstance without denying or minimizing the facts.

“The more you’re able to move your attention to what makes you feel good, the more capacity you’ll have to manage whatever was making you feel bad in the first place.” ~ Tony Schwartz

The brain’s negativity bias is powerful and fighting it will take time. But it will be well worth the effort.

Thanks for reading! If this post resonates with you be sure to click the like button below. Do share this post so that others may benefit from it too.

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