How your brain is wired: The Negativity Bias and why we can’t get negative stuff out of our minds

Sad woman sitting on chair during therpay session, mental health, negativity bias

Are you tuned into the negative bias – always fixing on what’s gone wrong, ruminating over bad news, or focusing on regrets? This subconscious, negative way in which our brain is wired can be a real drain on our mental health.

Authors of How Your Brain is Wired: An Owner’s Manual, Crawford Hollingworth and Cathy Tomlinson explain why we are often so focused on the negatives in life, and how to achieve a more positive outlook.

Negativity bias is the phenomenon that ensures we pay more attention, and give more weight, to negative experiences (e.g. thoughts, emotions, events) than positive experiences or information. It’s not that we’re all mad for gossip or chock-full of schadenfreude (not completely, anyway); it’s psychological, too. Our brains have a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. This is why we tend to think about the bad stuff for far longer than we do about the good. It’s why insults hurled at us years ago still shine bright. It’s why we hold grudges. (A friend in her fifties can still recall with sharp clarity the full name of the ‘best friend’ who called her ‘Fatty’ over forty years ago.) It’s the reason political smear campaigns are horribly more effective than positive ones. Nastiness and negativity mess with our brains.

In a 2001 article entitled ‘Bad is Stronger Than Good’, in which University of Queensland psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his co-authors analyse the power of negativity, they make the point that over and over, in all sorts of circumstances, bad things make a bigger impact than good. Of course, one of the main reasons for this is evolutionary:

A person who ignores the possibility of a positive outcome may later experience significant regret at having missed an opportunity for pleasure or advancement, but nothing directly terrible is likely to result. In contrast, a person who ignores danger … even once, may end up maimed or dead. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but is less urgent with regard to good ones.

Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved to keep us out of harm’s way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it impossible for us not to notice danger and, thus, be better able to respond to it fast. In today’s world, we don’t need to dodge physical dangers as regularly as our ancient ancestors did, but our negative reflex remains finely tuned nonetheless. Once we are conscious of its influence upon us, we can see it in action and perhaps tune it out when it pops up unnecessarily enthusiastically.

Baumeister and co. make the point that losing money, being ditched by friends or being criticised will undoubtedly have more of an impact on us than finding money, making new friends or receiving congratulations for a job well done. If someone says something critical or unpleasant to us, it can completely ruin our day, no matter how much good stuff preceded it or came after. It’s always the nasty that bites deeper. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, blogged on this very point:

I’ve discovered that reading one bad comment will ruin my morning, and reading five positive comments won’t cheer me up. So, I try to resist. For example, within marriage, it takes at least five good acts to repair the damage of one critical or destructive act. With money, the pain of losing a certain sum is greater than the pleasure of gaining that sum. I know this from my own experience. I remember, for example, that hitting the bestseller list with Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill thrilled me less than a bad review of that book upset me. Research shows that one consequence of the negativity bias is that when people’s thoughts are wandering, unoccupied, people tend to begin to brood; the negativity bias means that anxious or angry thoughts capture our attention more effectively than happier thoughts.

Studies conducted at Ohio State University by John Cacioppo (who founded the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience) demonstrated that the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by bad news than good. Think about the last time you lost some money – a £20 note, for instance. You’re certain to have been more emotional about that, and it would have niggled you for longer, than if you unexpectedly came across the same amount in an old coat pocket.

Extrovert and larger-than-life twentieth-century socialite Bubbles Rothermere was reputed to have a sofa cushion embroidered with the sentence ‘If you haven’t anything good to say about anyone, come over here and sit by me.’ I guess we can all recognise the lure of a good bad story. How we love conversations that begin, ‘I’ll tell you another terrible thing that happened…’ and ‘Did you hear about so-and-so?’

If it’s of any comfort, the older we get, the more we journey away from emphasising negative things as we focus increasingly on the positive, paying more attention to things that we can remember with pleasure. The scientific explanation for this is that the older we get, the better able we are to regulate our emotions and, since we know we have less life ahead of us, it is in our interest to make what life we have as positive as possible. And we can change things to make this happen. We might be able to change our environment to achieve a more positive outlook, and we can certainly amend our expectations. Psychologists have found that a healthy and positive approach to ageing can, in effect, be self-stimulated, and their advice is to concentrate on short- rather than long-term goals, and to focus on the positive.

Extract taken from How Your Brain is Wired: An Owners Manual, by Crawford Hollingworth and Cathy Tomlinson (Unbound, £16.99)  

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