Which do you remember most – the praise from your 7th grade teacher or the mean girl stuff that happened between classes? What about the negative review someone gave your creative piece a while back? Why does one dissatisfied customer seem to outweigh all the positive experiences you’ve had in your business? It’s your “negativity bias” – an automatic information processing response the brain employs when reacting to stimuli. Is it possible to override our inherent negativity bias for more happiness?
As part of my commitment to being “in the moment” this year, I’ve been looking at how I react to situations and personal encounters, and working toward better well-being. What I noticed is that I appear to have a strong negativity bias: I was allowing tons of positive feedback to be overshadowed by a ridiculously small number of negative reactions. On more occasions than I wanted, my negativity bias was interfering with my overall happiness and optimistic nature – I would find myself fixated and dwelling on negative influences. Definitely not what I wanted! If you’ve been programmed to resolve conflict by people-pleasing, playing the diplomat, or other non-confrontational strategies, you may find that your own negativity bias is strong, too, even if you’ve made positive improvements.
Psychology Today tells us our brain processes are wired to react more intensively toward negative experiences, and that our “capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason – to keep us out of harm’s way.” Our negativity bias is part of a group of brain processes that evolved from basic survival instincts. These are intended to make us aware of a threat to our well-being, so that we can subsequently take evasive action.
The brain processes positive experiences in its left hemisphere, and negative experiences in the right. Additionally, the brain’s amygdala region stores bad news in long term memory. Research on how the brain processes and integrates information is still ongoing, but there is no doubt we give more weight to a negative issue or encounter. Researchers have identified negativity bias in humans as young as three months old. If babies are reacting to negative experiences in the same way as adults, this would suggest we’re hardwired from the get-go with negativity bias.
That being said, if you’re lacking awareness of how your own negativity bias is impacting your overall happiness, decision-making and situational reactions, you could unintentionally be fueling this instinct. Instinctive brain processes trigger in a modern world laden with stress, frustration, fear and anger just as they did in earlier times. A great day with tons of positive affirmations can be derailed by a single negative event, even with a strong commitment to focus on the positive. It’s hard to fight evolution! Keeping perspective and zeroing in on the positive requires vigilance.
Attempts to override negativity bias require that we use a functional aspect of brain processes – neuroplasticity - to our advantage. Our brains are said to be neuroplastic because the way we use them changes their physical structure. Thus, if we employ more “left brain” function, we strengthen and prioritize this. Additionally, higher regions in the brain can modify function in other, less evolved regions. So, if we are intentional, we may be able to tinker with the hardwiring of our implicit or emotional memory, which resides in the brain’s more early mammalian structures. An example of this would be modifying how the amygdala analyzes and responds to negative experiences. If we prioritize negativity – which may seem more natural without this awareness – we reinforce our inherent bias.
Once I resigned from a position with an organization, telling myself it was a “snake pit” with no room to advance. I’d begun to dread going into work because of the constant complaining in the break room among my peers. These negative experiences were a downer! I had noticed that my general mood had plummeted in the months I’d worked there. What actually happened was my negativity bias was triggered almost constantly on a day-to-day basis, and almost without my knowing it, my overall outlook and emotional responses were changing, too. Quitting that job was a narrow escape; some people had worked there for years!
Utilizing what we know about negativity bias and information processing, popular author and psychologist Rick Hanson advises that we give a positive stimulus our full attention for at least 10 to 20 seconds in three steps:
1) Notice/create a positive experience;
2) Stay with the experience;
3) Absorb the experience.
Additionally, Hanson points out that experiences generally have both positive and negative aspects. Infusing the positive into negative experiences with a balanced perspective is an exercise that can help override negativity bias as well.
Certain neuro-scientific researchers claim that brain exercise may be a way to usefully treat mental diseases and maintain cognitive function throughout our lifespan. Many people have begun training programs such as Lumosity, or exercise their mental faculties with games such as sudoku or word puzzles. Other academics believe video games could be developed “to boost brain function and improve well-being” by training the brain into “positive effects on behavior, such as decreasing anxiety, sharpening attention and improving empathy.”
There’s no question the brain adapts to experience. If we can repetitively mold our response to stimuli by focusing first on their positive aspects, we can minimize the more depressive aspects of negative encounters. I know this isn’t going to happen overnight with me; no doubt my negativity bias will never completely disappear. But what I can do is focus on creating a responsive environment in my own head that is friendly to the positive optimistic person that I want to be and achieve greater happiness by steering clear of negative people and situations.