This Phenomenon Can Change the Way You Deal With Negativity in Your Life
Our negative thoughts are driven by biology but we can fight against them
Have you ever had a day filled with nothing but positivity, then you have one negative experience and it changes your entire outlook?
This could be a negative comment from a coworker or a small mistake you made at work or home. It is a minuscule thing, yet you still allow it to consume you for the rest of the week. You start to doubt your abilities, your self-worth is impacted, and you feel incapable.
Despite the awesome things you’ve achieved all week, this one comment or mistake is all you can think about.
The interesting thing about this thought process is that it’s purposely rooted in our psyche. This is a biological response called “Negativity Bias” or “The Negativity Effect.”
This Is Why We Sometimes Dwell on Negativity
Last week, I spoke with one of my friends on the phone. She is a counselor who previously treated me and I was complimenting her on what an amazing support person she is.
She told me that my praise meant the world to her but she recently received negative feedback from a client. Although she is one of the best in her field, this incident made her feel like she wasn’t doing her job correctly.
I commented that I had also had a workweek filled with praise. However, I received a negative comment on my work that really upset me and had me doubting my abilities.
I pondered, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” She said, “This is actually hardwired into our psyche, Amy.”
She has a psychology degree and explained the “Negative Bias” theory to me.
This theory has already drastically changed how I feel about negative comments and experiences.
What is Negativity Bias?
This theory was created by Paul Rozin and Edward B. Royzman, who are members of the Psychology Department at the University of Pennslyvania.
Negativity Bias or “The Negativity Effect” refers to the human nature tendency to “attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information”.¹
This means that we tend to learn from and recognize negative experiences more than positive ones.
We make our way through the day, worrying about what can go wrong. Later, we ruminate and pick apart our actions throughout the day, from first impressions to an interaction with a service person.
“Why did I do that?”
“She must've thought I was crazy”
“That text message I sent really didn't come across well”
We pick ourselves apart until we feel like garbage at the end of the day. Then we repeat the process again the following day, feeling more inadequate as time goes on.
We all do this, but the emotional impact of negativity bias varies from person-to-person.
Why Do We Pay More Attention to Negativity?
For starters, our tendency to pay attention to negative rather than positive information has been handed down via evolution. The psychology of The Negativity Effect began in the “caveman days”.
This was a reaction that our ancestors innately had to life-or-death situations. They needed this trait to survive their difficult lives in a dangerous time.
“We inherited the genes that predispose us to give special attention to those negative aspects of our environments that could be harmful to us”
— Psychologist and happiness researcher Timothy J. Bono, Ph.D.
Negative emotions arouse the amygdala, the part of the brain that sends alarm bells to trigger humans and tell them that danger may be near. This part of our brain uses two-thirds of its neurons to seek out bad news.
This bad news gets stored in our short-term memory and if we dwell on it then it becomes a long-term memory for future use. Some of these long-term memories become traumas and others impact our self-worth.
What is the impact of negativity bias?
“Evolutionary biologists tell us we have a “negativity bias” that makes our brains remember negative events more strongly than positive ones. So when we’re feeling lost or discouraged, it can be very hard to conjure up memories and feelings of happiness and ease.”
— SHARON SALZBERG, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection
When we focus on the negative, we tend to feel terrible physically, and mentally. As we know, things like tension headaches and high blood pressure can be side effects of stress and negative thoughts can cause stress.
Negativity Bias Means That Humans Are Hardwired To:
- Recall traumatic experiences more than positive ones.
- React more strongly to negative stimuli.
- Respond strongly to negative situations more than to positive ones.
- Conjure negative thoughts more frequently than positive ones.
- Recall insults better than praise.
Unfortunately, it’s in our nature to focus on the negative. If we carry these experiences, comments, and thoughts through our lives, it will show in our actions and decision-making process.
What are the results of the way we process negative events and comments?
- We will feel that we learn more from negative experiences than positive ones.
- We will tend to make decisions based more on negative thoughts than positive ones.
So sometimes, this isn't such a bad thing, it’s self-protection.
This is an example of making a decision based on a negative bias that is a good choice: Someone refusing to go back to an abusive relationship because of their partner’s previous actions.
Alternatively, if this person meets a great partner years later and is afraid to date them due to what their ex did to them in their last relationship: This is a decision based on fear and negative bias.
It’s a natural thing but biology can work against us sometimes.
How to Stop Negative Bias From Ruling Your Life
“The human brain’s negativity bias, which wires us to give more attention to the negative than to the positive, means feeling bad can become so familiar that it almost feels good. ”
— Iyanla Vanzant
Negative Bias can adversely impact our mental health by causing us to dwell on negative thoughts and experiences, hinder our relationships with loved ones, and stifle our optimistic outlook on life.
So how do we overcome this biological need to favor negative information and filter out positivity?
Challenge Your Thoughts
Every time you think about a past negative thought or experience and attempt to use it against yourself: Talk to yourself like a friend. Use your rational thinking and question each argument that your inner self comes up with.
For example, after your mother says you look like you’ve gained weight, you are upset and feeling hurt. You think: “I must really be fat, I am so lazy, what's wrong with me?”
A way to challenge this thought: “I am healthy, mom may have noticed that I put on some weight due to quarantine but in reality, I am comfortable with how I look.”
Another way to challenge this thought: “I think I do need to lose a few pounds, I miss the gym so why not go tomorrow?”
Conduct a rebuttal against yourself twice, then go do something else. A hobby, a work project, or a walk. Clear your head.
Learn From Negative Experiences
Learn from each negative comment or experience. Don’t beat yourself up, but ask yourself what you could've done differently and plan to implement your new outlook in the future.
Revel in Every Positive Moment
Celebrate your positive experiences and remember that the majority of people want you to succeed. If have you received a negative comment, realize that people who criticize others online are usually lost souls.
It’s almost always about them and not about you.
Paint a Silver Lining on Every Cloud
Realize that life is here to teach us and the bad things that happen to us are lessons from a higher power. Reframe the event in your mind.
For example, Your boss chastises you for forgetting a detail on a project. You could learn from that mistake and start a checklist of details to remember for the next project. You can also reflect on the compliments he gave you on that project, despite the missed detail.
Leaders tend to do something called the compliment sandwich (I learned this from my husband, who is a former Master Corporal in the Canadian Infantry).
The compliment sandwich is used to frame critique with two compliments. Remember and cherish those compliments, but also learn from your mistakes so you are not doomed to repeat them.
Turning lemons into lemonade
No matter what field of work you are in, you will deal with negative comments. In your personal life, you will have negative experiences.
Remember, our brain is biologically wired to take these negative things and turn them into a focal point for the purpose of survival.
Don’t allow your brain to trick you into believing you are less than what you are. You are more powerful than your thoughts.
“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.” ― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Amy Sarah is a freelance writer who hails from a small city in Canada. She enjoys interacting with fellow writers, dreaming of ideas for her next article, and researching a myriad of topics.
 Margaret Jaworski. February 19, 2020. “The Negativity Bias: Why the Bad Stuff Sticks”. https://www.psycom.net/negativity-bias