In this video, Andy Smith explains the effects of our hard-wired negative bias, what we can do to combat it, and why Appreciative Inquiry is a particularly effective method.

If Appreciative Inquiry is new to you, you may want to watch this short video first: What Is Appreciative Inquiry?

More Appreciative Inquiry videos to follow soon!

If you want to get started with using Appreciative Inquiry with teams and small groups, consider joining the Practical Appreciative Inquiry online facilitator training – the next one starts soon!


Have you ever been on the receiving end of an insult or a critical comment, and found yourself brooding on it for days afterwards? If you get a mixture of positive and negative feedback about your work performance, which one sticks in your mind longer? Do you still vividly remember making a fool of yourself in front of friends or family, even though it happened decades ago and everyone else has forgotten about it, if they noticed it at all in the first place?

If so, you’re like pretty much every other human being. Research has found that we pay more attention to negative images than positive ones, that we give more weight to risks than opportunities in decision making, and even that negative news feels more true to us than positive news. We take in negative information more quickly than positive information, and when we are forming an impression of a new person, the negatives about them influence our overall judgement more than the positives.

Once we’re in the frame of mind that views the world in terms of negatives and losses (the “loss frame”) it takes us more time and effort to switch to the “gain frame” (noticing positives and potential gains) than it does to go the other way, from gain frame to loss frame.

It’s easy to see how we evolved to give more weight to potential losses than potential gains, to negatives rather than positives.

Imagine a group of our ancestors, hundreds of thousands of years ago on the plains of Africa. In the distance they see a nice, tasty herd of antelope. Mmmm… but in another direction, about the same distance away, they see – oh no, a bunch of hungry looking lions!

If there were any early humans in that group who paid more attention to the antelopes than the lions, they probably didn’t survive to pass their genes down to us.

Why Do We Need To Redress The Balance From Negative Bias?

Because human beings tend to emphasise negatives more than positives, we sometimes need to deliberately remind ourselves not to overlook the positives. If we don’t do this, we are going to miss valuable information. as well as making ourselves feel worse and therefore less resourceful than we need to be.

Knowing what causes things to go wrong doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about what causes them to go right.

A great example is described in ‘Why Do Things Go Right?’ from the blog by Sidney Dekker. He was working with a health authority on patient safety. Their patient safety statistics were pretty bad: one in 13 patients were hurt in the process of receiving medical care.

When the health authority investigated these one in 13 ‘adverse events’, they consistently found:

  • Workarounds
  • Shortcuts
  • Violations
  • Guidelines not followed
  • Errors and miscalculations
  • Unreliable measurements
  • User-unfriendly technologies
  • Organizational frustrations
  • Supervisory shortcomings
  • Unfindable people or medical instruments

But when Dekker and his team studied the other 12 cases, where things went right, they consistently found those same factors present..

It was only when they started looking deeper into “Why did those 12 cases go right?” that they found the difference. These factors were more present in the cases that went right than in the one that resulted in an ‘adverse incident’:

  • Diversity of opinion and the possibility to voice dissent
  • Keeping a discussion on risk alive
  • Deference to expertise (i.e. listening
    to people at the sharp end)
  • Ability to safely speak up and voice concerns
  • Broken down barriers between hierarchies and departments
  • Not waiting for audits or inspections before you improve
  • Pride of workmanship

Let me spell this out: if they’d only looked at the cases where things went wrong, they would have assumed that the common factors they found – of shortcuts, violations, and so on – were the causes of the problems.

It’s only when they looked at the cases where things went right that they found those factors were present there too – they were just the way of the world, and focusing on trying to eliminate them altogether probably wasn’t possible and would soon bring diminishing returns.

Traditional problem solving, analysing the causes of problems, would never have found the factors that needed to be present in order for things to go right, because we don’t see what isn’t there. If you want to find what’s needed for success, look at your successes – or else you’re missing half the story.

Left to ourselves, we would give much more weight to negatives and problems than to positive factors and successes. So to combat this unconscious bias, sometimes we need to deliberately employ a procedure that reminds us to raise our eyes from analysing deeper and deeper into the problem, to remember that we have resources and successes, and put problems back into context.

We need Appreciative Inquiry.

Look For Positive Exceptions

In Appreciative Inquiry, we’re looking in particular for the cases of exceptional success. We’re not benchmarking average performance, we’re interested in the times when things went exceptionally well – even if those occasions are few and far between.

In a conventional benchmarking process, the occasional moments of peak performance would probably be dismissed as statistical ‘noise’ – just blips to be ignored as within the margin of error. Yet the times when things went exceptionally well – in society as a whole, in the performance of a team, or in your own life – are the most valuable areas to study.

If we look for the moments of exceptional success with the assumption that in every human system something is working, we are going to find them. Even if overall average performance is poor, some things will be working well, at least some of the time. When we find that evidence, we remember that we are better than we thought we were.

What’s more, if we identify the conditions that are present in those moments when things go exceptionally well, that enabled that peak performance to happen, maybe we can put them in place more widely so we can have more success more often.

References for the research referred to in the video:

Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain
Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(4), 887–900.

Negative Bias In Decision Making (Kahnemann and Tversky’s Prospect Theory)

We believe bad news more
Baumeister, Roy F.; Finkenauer, Catrin; Vohs, Kathleen D. (2001). “Bad is stronger than good” (PDF). Review of General Psychology5 (4): 323–370.

Sticky Prospects: Loss Frames Are Cognitively Stickier Than Gain Frames
Ledgerwood, A., & Boydstun, A. E. (2013, March 25). Sticky Prospects: Loss Frames Are Cognitively Stickier Than Gain Frames. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Negatives outweigh positives in forming an impression of a person: multiple studies

Links to more research and examples here: Why Your Brain Is Hardwired For Negativity, And What You Can Do About It

We Humans Have A Built-In Negative Bias – Here’s How To Redress It (Video And Transcript)

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