Why Are We So Negative?

Why is it that when someone gives you a critique, it seems stained in your memory for all of time, but when someone gives you a compliment, you may hardly think anything of it? Why do we effortlessly think of all the things that could go wrong, instead of what could go right?

It almost seems like negative events stick to our brains, our memories, and our emotional response system, whereas positive events have the potential to leave little to no impact. If you have had this experience, you’re very human, because research has shown that there is something called the “negativity bias,” meaning we are predisposed to give more importance to potentially harmful, negative stimuli.

Who came up with the negativity bias?

The negativity bias is a well-known principle of human psychology, coined by Paul Rozin and Edward Rozyman in their 2001 paper entitled “Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion.” The full paper is available in PDF form online. Rozin and Rozyman state that, “in most situations, negative events are more salient, potent, dominant in combinations, and generally efficacious than positive events.”

They highlight the presence of this principle by opening their paper speaking about cockroaches, and with the following example: the presence of a single cockroach on your dinner platter will inevitably spoil the meal, but no amount of sweet delicacies would ever alter the non-appetizing nature of a plateful of cockroaches. In other words, “bad” stuff or negative stimuli will always weigh much heavier in our minds and overtake the situation – and as we can see with his analogy, there are many obvious, good reasons for that!

We develop a negativity bias EARLY – like REALLY early

Research has shown that a bias towards paying MORE attention to information that signals unpleasant or harmful stimuli can be detected at as young as 7-12 months of life. A lot of the negative feedback we receive is emotionally transmitted by our caregivers – for example, under study conditions, if the caregiver responds with anger and tension in response to a toy, the child will be less likely to explore that toy, or take a longer time to do so.

This has possible evolutionary explanations, such that from the perspective of survival, avoiding negative/harmful stimuli is much more advantageous than approaching positive stimuli. That is, positive/neutral stimuli will tell us to “keep doing what you’re doing.” However, if we were to put ourselves in danger/harm, the consequences could obviously be much more severe and life-threatening, and having a strong response to avoid, retract, recoil, rethink, would be very advantageous to our survival.

Creating more awareness around the negativity bias

First off, it can be a huge relief to know that the negativity bias exists. No, it’s not just you who tends to ruminate on the one negative interaction in a sea of positive interactions. It’s not just you who hit traffic on the way home and now you feel your whole day is “ruined.” It’s a thing that our brain does, and there is a compassionate, evolutionary purpose behind it all.

When we notice our thoughts swirling around what went wrong, what is wrong, and what could go wrong, we can remind ourselves that, although our brain is just trying to do its job of keeping us safe, we might be causing ourselves more harm than good.

How awareness of the negativity bias can help

Knowledge about the way our brain has a predisposition to work can be very helpful for making changes that allow us to lead healthier, happier lives. One example of this is our predisposition to find a lot of pleasure in eating sugary treats – though our body needs glucose to thrive, the once-scarce substance can cause us a lot of damage if we over-indulge (which we can so easily do with abundant availability and accessibility). With the knowledge that eating too much sugar can lead to poor health outcomes, we end up making different decisions. When we understand that our proclivity to respond positively to sugar doesn’t equate with it always being the best for us in large quantities, we can make different food choices. We are much more able to regulate how we engage with the modern world, despite what our brain might be telling us.

Similarly, it can be empowering to know that the negativity bias exists and that we have a propensity to attend to, give weight to, and remember negative stimuli. The purpose of this is not to make our lives miserable, but simply, to survive. For this reason, we can be grateful that our brain has such a propensity to avoid danger, but we also want to be able to curb this habit when the circumstances are generally safe.

How do we reduce the negativity bias?

Research shows that mindfulness can help certain structures in our brain to become less reactive to negative stimuli and negative social situations, suggesting that by practicing paying attention in the present moment without judgment, we can buffer against our brain’s predisposition to feel the weight of the negative.

Gratitude practices can help train our brain to focus on the positive, and doing something as simple as writing 1 letter of gratitude per week for 3 weeks has been shown to benefit our mental health overall.

We can also take a moment to turn towards our negative thoughts and do a little inquiry:

When you find yourself stuck on thinking about the negative, ask yourself, what is it that I am afraid of? What is the threat that my brain is trying to help me avoid? Perhaps it is debt, a lawsuit, a breakup or divorce, rejection, being overpowered, death, etc.

Take a moment to explore the truth of that fear. What will I do if it does happen? How likely do I think it is for it to happen?

Have there been other times in your life where you had a positive or neutral outcome after a similar situation? Can you remind yourself of these times? Are there things in the present moment that, despite the fear, are actually going really well? Choose to focus on that, over and over again.

Confronting our negativity bias is not about ignoring things in our life that are not working for us, not supporting us, or are just plain harmful to us, like toxic relationship dynamics, abuse, or unethical behavior. Confronting negativity bias is about coming to be more aware that a single criticism may have more weight in our mind than all the accolades – not because we are incompetent – but because our brain has a tendency to amplify this information. We may not be able to forget that one time our partner showed up late to dinner but can easily discount all the times they were on time. We may evaluate our entire day as “bad” when really it was just the traffic on the way home that gave us grief. Confronting negativity bias can be liberating in that we don’t have to stop at the negative, but we can look beyond to what other information is available to us.

  • Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
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