There’s a wealth of research showing that most people give more attention to threats than opportunities, for example:
- Negative experiences are remembered in more detail than positive ones
- Our attitudes are influenced more heavily by bad news than good news (research by John Cacioppo)
- People feel more negative emotion if they lose $100 than positive emotion if they gain $100 (this is known as “loss aversion”)
- People evaluate the writers of critical articles as being more intelligent than the writers of positive ones
- Negative opinions are more ‘contagious’ than positive ones, and privately held positive opinions are more susceptible to negative peer influence than the other way round
One practical effect of negativity bias is that, if we spend equal amounts of time looking at positives and negatives, it’s the negatives that stay with us more. This is unfortunate, because positive emotions actually do make us smarter, more creative and more resilient – just what we need to be in order to cope with challenging situations.
A sustained negative mood, by contrast, drains our energy and makes us feel less capable. The more we focus on problems, the more they expand to fill our mental space – which means we don’t notice solutions even if they are within easy reach.
Why do we have this negativity bias?
Imagine being one of our ancestors on the plains of Africa, a million years ago. In the middle distance you spot a nice juicy antelope. But in the other direction, at a similar distance, is a hungry lion. Which one do you pay most attention to?
I’m guessing you said the lion. The early humans who paid more attention to the antelope probably didn’t get to survive long enough to pass their genes on.
What can you do about it?
To counteract an inbuilt bias, you need to take deliberate conscious action – and keep at it until it becomes a habit. Here are three simple strategies you can use to overcome negativity bias in your life and work:
- Deliberately savour good experiences and pay attention to the details. Take at least 20 seconds to really notice the good experience – this will give it time to make it into your long-term memory.
- When looking at your own performance, use the idea from Appreciative Inquiry that in every human situation, something is working. Assume that the good is there in your current and past performance, and deliberately go looking for it. By yourself, you could answer the standard questions from appreciative interviewing in writing. Even better, get a friend to ask you those questions face to face.
- According to research by John Gottman, relationships flourish when the ratio of positive to negative interactions is at least five to one. So with your colleagues and your family, be sure to make most of your comments positive and encouraging. Expressing contempt is a particularly corrosive to relationships, so make sure any negative feedback you do have to give is expressed calmly and for the right reasons.