Imagine the following situation; as a manager of a company, you are responsible for guiding the operational processes in the right direction and for managing and motivating your employees. These employees give their best every day to lift the company to a higher level and from time to time you praise them for this. Unfortunately, every now and then something goes wrong resulting in not meeting a certain deadline or delivering an non-qualitative product. As a manager you immediately criticise the person responsible for this error.
What do you think your staff members pay most attention to? The fact that they receive the occasional compliment for their work or the fact that they are immediately criticised for that one mistake?
We guess the latter, based on the negativity bias.
This phenomenon, also known as the positive-negative asymmetry, is inherent to humans and describes the fact that the impact of negative stimuli will be many times greater than that of positive stimuli. Your focus simply lingers longer on negative events, you make them more important in your mind than they actually are. Thus, receiving criticism will have a much greater impact than receiving a compliment, bad news will cause more sensation than good news and traumas will stay with you longer than happy memories.
Yet it turns out not to be so easy to move away from this focus on the negative, which is due to its evolutionary origin. In order to survive in prehistoric times it was necessary to avoid dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations, paying more attention often meant living a day longer.
In babies, too, we notice this negativity bias fairly quickly; up to their first year, babies mainly focus on positive facial expressions; a smile, sweet words, … However, from the age of 1 year, and sometimes even earlier, more and more brain responses to negative stimuli are observed. We can say that from that age the positive-negative balance starts to tilt towards the negative.
This asymmetry has also been observed scientifically; several studies have found greater brain activity in response to negative stimuli and this in those parts of our brain responsible for processing critical information.
The consequences of this negativity bias can be seen on several levels. For example, your intrinsic motivation to perform tasks is strongly influenced by it; avoiding punishment, criticism, pain appears to be a stronger motivator than receiving a reward, a compliment or joy. It also affects how important decisions are made; the fear of loss is greater than the joy of gain, which means that you will take the negative aspects or negative consequences of a certain decision more into account than the positive ones. Your social interactions also suffer from this; how often do you unconsciously make a certain decision or do you unconsciously behave differently because you assume ‘the worst’ in others?
You can already guess the consequences of a bad first impression…
These are all examples that show how the negativity bias grips our daily lives and why it is so important to sideline it. Holding on to negative or even dark thoughts for too long is detrimental to our mental health, can damage our own relationships and makes it difficult for us to maintain a positive outlook on life.
But how can we become more aware of such an unconscious phenomenon? First of all, pay more attention to the thoughts that are wandering through your mind; for example, often after an event has occurred we think “I should not have done this”, but instead try to focus on the things that went well, on things we can learn from this event and how we can apply these things in the future. When we find ourself struggling with heavy thoughts, try to think of other, more positive thoughts. It helps to exercise, listen to music, etc. Put positive events more in the picture, dwell on them longer so that a small setback does not cause you to say that at the end of the day: “I had a bad day”.
Be aware that a phenomenon such as the negativity bias exists and that it unconsciously plays a major role in our lives. Only by being aware of this you can take action to tilt the positive-negative balance towards the positives side.
- J.T. Cacioppo, S. Cacioppo, J.K. Gollan. The Negativity Bias: Conceptualization, Quantification, and Individual Differences. June2014. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
- K. Goldsmith, D. Ravi. Negativity Bias and Task Motivation: Testing the Effectiveness of Positively versus Negatively Framed Incentives. 2013. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.
- J.K. Hamlin, K. Wynn, P. Bloom. Three-month-olds Show a Negativity Bias in their Social Evaluations. March 2010. Developmental Science.
- C.M. Alberini. Long-term Memories: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. 2010. Cerebrum.