Negativity bias: how negative experiences cloud our judgement

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Have you ever found yourself ruminating over a mistake you made a while ago? Replaying in your head a conversation that didn’t go so well? That’s the negativity bias at play: not only do we register negative stimuli more readily, but we also tend to dwell on these events for longer.

In general, negative events have a bigger impact on our mental state than positive ones. While the negativity bias used to be a useful survival mechanism, it has a powerful—and often unconscious—impact on the way we behave, think, and build relationships.

Hardwired for negativity

We don’t pay attention to all events and our corresponding emotional reactions in the same way. One negative event can taint an overall good day. It’s the same with interactions: you may have a good relationship with someone who has supported and complimented you many times over, but you will tend to more saliently remember the one time they shared negative feedback.

Negativity bias in action: negative emotions weigh more than positive emotions

Because of the negativity bias:

  • We think about negative experiences more frequently than positive ones.
  • We remember insults better than praise.
  • We recall traumatic events better than positive ones.

Neuroscience studies show that negative stimuli elicit a much stronger response in the brain than positive or neutral stimuli, and even three‐month‐olds show a negativity bias in their social interactions.

The negativity bias makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Earlier in human history, paying attention to threats was a matter of survival. Those who paid more attention and remembered better these threats were more likely to survive, and to pass down their genes. But today, it can prevent us from thinking clearly and making the right decisions.

The impact of the negativity bias on decision making

Research suggests that we tend to make decisions based on negative information more than positive data. This can lead to risk aversion (a preference for a sure outcome over a gamble with higher expected value) or loss aversion (the tendency to prefer avoiding losses compared to acquiring equivalent gains).

This can have an impact on our decision to pursue a goal or complete a task. For instance, studies found that we have less motivation when an incentive is framed as a means to gain something, compared to when the same incentive will help us avoid the loss of something.

The negativity bias can also cloud our judgement. Negative news is more likely to be perceived as true compared to positive news. While the researchers admitted they didn’t understand the exact cognitive mechanisms underlying this effect, they offered two potential explanations: “Negatively framed statements were shown to receive substantially higher truth ratings than formally equivalent statements framed positively (…) On the one hand, negative framing may induce increased elaboration and thereby persuasion. Alternatively, negative framing could yield faster retrieval or generation of evidence and thus influence subjective veracity via experiential fluency.”

How to manage the negativity bias

While the negativity bias is deeply ingrained, it is possible to manage it. As Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, puts it: “What we focus on, we empower and enlarge. Good multiplies when focused upon. Negativity multiplies when focused upon. The choice is ours: Which do we want more of?”

If the answer is the former, here are some ways you can create a more positive outlook for yourself:

  • Pay attention. The first and perhaps most important step is to be aware of this common bias. Whenever you find yourself ruminating over that one time when you embarrassed yourself in front of your colleagues, or that one comment someone made about your work, remember that it is the negativity bias at play and try to objectively balance the facts out.
  • Make space for self-reflection. Sometimes all it takes to manage the negativity bias is to write down your thoughts and feelings. Writing is a thinking tool: it can act as a forcing mechanism for self-reflection.
  • Establish positive routines. Whenever you find yourself replaying a negative event in your head, try to switch your attention to something positive. It could be going for a walk, listening to uplifting music, or chatting with a friend. Such routines will help break the cycle of rumination.
  • Use mental models. A good way to avoid or at least reduce some cognitive biases is to use mental models to guide your decisions. In the case of the negativity bias, mental models may help you objectively judge a situation without falling prey to our tendency for risk aversion and loss aversion. For instance, the DECIDE framework offers a simple approach to decision-making that encourages you to consider all the alternatives before making a choice.

And, most importantly: don’t beat yourself up if you catch yourself falling prey to the negativity bias—that would defeat the purpose. Just be more mindful of the balance between your emotions, and actively try to recall positive memories so you don’t fill your mind with negative self-talk.