Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Do you find yourself fixating on a mistake you’ve made, or ruminating over a criticism? Ever wondered why we get drawn to look at a traffic accident as we pass? Or, why we get so absorbed in the constant newsfeed of THE virus? And why people are so willing to believe conspiracy theories?
This is our negativity bias. We humans have a propensity to give more weight to things that go wrong rather than to those that go right. Which is why criticism has a far greater impact than a compliment, why we are drawn to the bad news as opposed to the good, and why people feel like the world is out to get them at times. As we are all aware, now more so than ever, this ‘negative bias’ can have such a powerful effect on our behaviour, our decisions, and even our relationships.
So why do negative events have a greater impact on our brains than positive ones? Evolution. Back when our daily lives revolved around caves and hunting, paying attention to the bad, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those of us who were more attuned to danger, and who paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive. So having a negative bias meant you survived, you reproduced and therefore passed this trait on to your offspring, and they too would survive. Natural selection for the negative.
Whilst we have moved on, our biochemistry and those innate patterns which saved us many thousands of years ago, have not.
How do we manage it?
But there is good news. Despite the evolutionary hand we’ve been dealt, we are able to override this default setting. To do this we need to put effort into valuing the good and positive aspects of our lives. This creates a more balanced outlook. Even if we are facing a multitude of negative situations, we can begin to appreciate the positive aspects of our life, regardless of how small they may be.
1. Self-awareness – Begin to gently recognise what is happening when negative thought patterns are activated. When they do, do one small positive practice to break the pattern. Maybe look outside and notice something – a tree, the blue sky, the green grass. Or take three deep breaths deep into your belly. Or think of something that makes you smile – a family member, a pet, a memory, a holiday. Or do something active – go for a walk, read a book, play with your child or pet. This can help break a negative spiral escalating.
2. Watch your self-talk – Pay attention to the thoughts that run through your mind. Notice your negative self-dialogue. Instead of fixating on past mistakes that cannot be changed, consider what you have learned and how you might apply that in the future. Try to substitute a positive approach; “I am an idiot!” or “I shouldn’t have done that” becomes, “If this happened again I could have made a different choice, I can remember this and apply it to future situations” or “What can I learn from this?”.
3. Savour the good – When we take time to stop and ‘drink in’ a positive experience, we are savouring (and saving) it, creating good memories for the future. We have to acknowledge the good when it happens, we can then build up this store of positive mental images and feelings. We can recall these to help create perspective when the negative bias sets in. Next time you have a positive experience, take longer to enjoy it, experience it, feel the sensations, actively acknowledge it – tell someone if you can, or write it down, it helps cement the memory.
An exercise to overcome negative bias
Journaling is a great technique to help us recognise patterns in our feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. We can use it to help us get perspective when the negative bias kicks in.
At the end of each day write down or say (a great activity to do around the dinner table with friends, family, partner):
Three not so good things from the day.
Three good things from the day. These can be as simple as; ‘I had my morning coffee and didn’t spill it’, or ‘I went for a walk at lunch in the sunshine’.
What would you have done differently today?
Having the good next to the bad helps you see that even on the worst days there is some good. Rather than reprimanding ourselves, we can learn from our day. This gives us perspective and the ability to make better decisions in the future.
Ride the wave
It is important to remember we are not trying to eliminate negative thoughts and emotions entirely, they do have a place. We are more concerned with how we handle them.
As we begin to notice our negativity bias, we can start to view these adverse events with a different mindset. We can learn to keep them in perspective. We will then learn to ride the waves that roll through our life, without getting thrown about by them.