Negativity bias and how it impacts us
Do you ever feel irrationally drawn to catastrophic news coverage? Do you find yourself grimly doom-scrolling through social media pile-ons between strangers, even though you know it’s not good for you? If so, then you’re not alone. Welcome to the world of negativity bias: the human tendency to focus on the dark side of situations. In this article, we’ll talk about what negativity bias is, then share a few tips about keeping a sense of perspective.
The prevailing explanation for negativity bias seems to be that this is an ancient evolutionary impulse: that our brains are hard-wired to engage more with negative stimuli than with positive ones, as a means of protecting us from existential threats such as predators and war. Since humans have evolved to learn from our experiences and use these to assist in our future survival, this tendency also means that negative experiences are much more likely to linger in our mind than positive experiences. In fact, according to Medium, it takes five positive experiences to outweigh just one negative experience.
These days, many (although by no means all) of us are fortunate enough to be unlikely to encounter threats to our very existence on a daily basis, yet in many ways our mindset remains the same. In fact, in some ways we could argue that many of the features of today’s world are inclined to exacerbate our tendency to see and remember the worst in situations, from twenty-four-hour rolling news coverage to increasingly targeted social media algorithms that feed us back content that is likely to elicit an emotional response from us.
All of this is troubling for at least three reasons. First of all, the psychological impact of our tendency to over-concentrate on the negative has a range of troubling side effects, which an article by The Better You Institute lists as ranging from feelings of anger and helplessness to a sense of emptiness and inadequacy. And it’s not just our mindset that’s affected: the same article indicates that disproportionately negative thinking can impact on our physical health too. Yet perhaps most harmfully of all, negativity bias has the potential to condition the way we perceive other people - both friends and strangers - and can lead us to be more likely to expect the worst of people and to dwell on misunderstandings or minor conflicts rather than remembering otherwise friendly behaviour. (Positive Psychology)
The good news is that there are steps we can take to counter all of this. The first of these is recognition. If we are aware that we are focusing unduly on negative experiences, we can try to counter them, either by focusing on positive counterpoints, or by recognising that in some situations we may be catastrophising or losing our sense of proportion. It’s important to recognise that negative thoughts and feelings serve an important purpose and are valid in and of themselves, and that in many senses it is normal to be concerned about important personal issues such as relationship issues or money problems. The key is to try to keep these in perspective.
Talking to trusted friends or family members can also help us to see a situation more clearly and to keep the wider picture in mind. As the above article by The Better You Institute mentions, in some cases, particularly in social situations, our minds can fixate on something that people around us have already forgotten about. You might still be acutely aware of a minor social faux pas that you committed, such as momentarily forgetting a friend or a colleague’s name, but it might have flown right over the top of other people’s heads. The same can be true of situations where something is said and then misinterpreted, or we believe that we or others might have caused offence unknowingly.
More practical tips include limiting the amount of time spent reading the news and on social media (both of which are admittedly often easier said than done). We may feel a sense of responsibility towards our fellow citizens and a need to keep up to date with things that are happening in the world, but it’s important to keep this in proportion, which is something that the attention-seeking nature of constant “breaking news” updates makes it difficult for us to do. If you want to understand more about a particular situation, try reading more in-depth articles rather than constantly-updating rolling coverage.
It can also be helpful to try to spend time on activities that don’t rely on a smartphone, such as reading a paperback novel or print newspaper, or immersing yourself in an activity that uses your hands, like knitting or crafting. If you’re of a more intrepid mindset, spending time outdoors is also a way of gaining an important sense of perspective and helping you to appreciate the beauty of the world.
Lastly, the idea of keeping ‘gratitude journals’ is popular these days, and while it might seem difficult to feel particularly thankful at a time of great political and economic uncertainty in many parts of the world, it’s always good to try to seek some happiness out of small, everyday moments. Even in the bleakest of times, there is always something that can inspire us, whether it’s a piece of street art, a bunch of flowers, or a person playing a musical instrument in a subway station. Deliberately taking some time to appreciate a positive moment won’t necessarily outweigh all of the negative ones, but it will at least give your mind something else to think about.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s ‘Mindfulness and Wellbeing’ article, and we’d be interested to know whether you agree with the ideas that we’ve shared. If you have alternative tips on keeping a sense of clarity - or you want to share more about how negativity bias has impacted on you - please feel free to add your thoughts to the comments.
Until the next time!
Medium, How to Overcome Your Brain’s Negativity Bias. https://medium.com/brainchronicles/how-to-overcome-your-brains-negativity-bias-a2acbc5352c9
Positive Psychology, What Is Negativity Bias and How Can It Be Overcome?
The Better You Institute, Negative Bias | Learning How To Overcome Negative Thinking