Ever wondered by the negative things always stick in your mind more than the positive? The reason is negativity bias.
What is negativity bias and why are we prone to it?
It’s common to hold on to the negative things said about us rather than the compliments we receive. They can stay on your mind for days, months, even years in some cases. They remain there and it’s a constant process to try to forget or ignore them.
We remember traumatic experiences in better detail than positive experiences and respond more quickly to negative events than we do positive ones. Our brains are hard-wired with a negativity bias, essentially meaning we have a greater sensitivity to negative information.
One study from the University of Chicago took a group of people and shows them pictures of positive, neutral and negative stimuli. Positive being things like expensive cars or pizza. Neutral being things such as appliances or plates. Negative being things like dead animals or injuries.
The study revealed the brain reacts more strongly to the negative stimuli than the positive, demonstrating that negative information has a greater impact on us.
We have the propensity to weigh negative information as more important because it has protected us in the past. As humans evolved, we had to protect ourselves from danger and negative information played a huge role in this.
By remembering the negative impact of certain behaviors, different plants or resources, we learned what to avoid. The brain, therefore, makes it impossible to ignore negative stimuli in order to keep us safe.
How does negativity bias affect us nowadays?
It’s all well and good staying safe from poisonous berries and vicious animals, but in a time where we have evolved past that danger, negativity bias seems like an evolutionary hanger-on. This, however, is not the case.
This cognitive bias affects us in a number of ways in modern life, both in constructive and damaging ways. As an unconscious occurrence, we may not recognize these effects, but studies have shown negativity bias to be ever-present in our behaviors.
Negativity bias affects our motivation, making us more motivated when we anticipate a negative response than a positive gain. This is what makes us rush to meet deadlines and work hard to impress those in positions of power.
Negativity bias makes us consider bad news to be more truthful than good news. This is because it demands more of our attention and we automatically consider it to be more valid than positive news. This can take the form of anything from personal insults to world news.
Political smear campaigns have long been known to be more successful than positive campaigns.
However, there are also interesting studies which have linked conservative political views to a stronger response to negative information. Those who identify as politically conservative have also been shown to be more likely to consider ambiguous information as threatening. This explains why some people view tradition as more secure and reject change as a threat.
Nobel prize winners, Kahneman and Tversky found that when making decisions, people tend to place greater weight on the negative aspects of an event. This tendency has a huge impact on the decisions and risks people are willing to take.
When we play a situation forward, the risk of loss or fear of negative consequences will be the first things we think about. We will also tend to give these fears more attention than the potential benefits of a decision.
Negativity bias can affect our relationships by leading us to expect the worst in others, especially if we have been hurt before. This can lead us to be less trusting in new relationships.
It may also lead us to anticipate negative reactions before positive ones. We may consider the worst-case scenario in extreme detail without even thinking about the best.
In our own behaviors, however, we should be mindful that negative comments will hold more weight than positive ones. Focus on being respectful, even during arguments, as you may say something you will regret later.
When people say, ‘First impressions last’, they’re not kidding. People tend to hang onto a negative first impression and allow it to cloud the judgment of that person. It can take a lot of work to overcome a negative first impression than it can to make a good one and maintain it.
Can we overcome negativity bias?
The good news is that it is possible to move past negativity bias and maintain a more positive outlook on life. Negativity runs in cycles and we tend to ruminate on the bad stuff.
The first step is to break the cycle. Stop thinking negatively about yourself and list five things you like about yourself instead. Be more forgiving of others and be open-minded when meeting people. You never know when someone is just having a bad day. Take time to savor positive moments and try to recall the good parts of the negative memories.
We may not be able to completely remove this cognitive bias, but we can be aware of it. Understanding the bias and how it affects us is the first step in moving past the negativity.
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