The Negativity Bias by Melli O’Brien
Imagine you do a presentation at work and then everyone in your team has to give you feedback. If five of those people compliment your work and one person criticises it which will you remember later? Which one could keep you up at night ruminating about it?
The criticism gets highlighted in our mind because of what is known as the negativity bias.
WHY DO OUR MINDS HIGHLIGHT THE NEGATIVE?
This bias towards the negative is completely normal. As the human mind evolved over the last 150-200,000 years, it was vitally important to learn from negative experiences so that we could outwit predators and avoid dangers. So now the mind registers negative experiences very quickly and highlights them and stores them in memory. This helped us remember how to avoid potential future threats.
On the other hand, positive experiences don’t register in the same way. They need to be held in awareness for some time before they get stored in our memory.
THE PROBLEM WITH OUR BIAS TOWARDS THE NEGATIVE
We don’t live in a world where there are constant threats and dangers like the thousands of years gone by, but our brain still operates in the same way. The problem with the negativity bias for us these days is that over the long term we can develop a growing tendency to be pessimistic, stressed and negative. We can become sensitive to upsets and grievances and resentments. It can also knock our confidence and really cloud our ability to see things clearly.
Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson often uses the metaphor that positive experiences are like teflon for the mind – they slip right off – whereas negative experiences are like velcro. This is a great metaphor for understanding how ‘sticky’ negative experiences can be in the mind.
HOW MY NEGATIVITY BIAS ALMOST DERAILED MY DREAM
I remember vividly a troubling experience I had thanks to this negativity bias. It was a couple of years ago when I ran the Mindfulness Summit. The Summit ended up being the world’s largest mindfulness conference attended by over 250,000 people online. It was a not-for-profit project aiming to make mindfulness more mainstream. The event raised around a million dollars for mindfulness-based charities around the world. It was a big dream and something I was really passionate about.
Now even though it was a wonderful mission I was very nervous because it was my job to interview some of the world’s most respected mindfulness teachers, neuroscientists and researchers.
I hadn’t interviewed anyone before, and putting myself out there in front of 250k people wasn’t easy for me. I was naturally nervous because I hadn’t done anything like it before, but to make matters much worse, during the first two days of the Summit, some people got on the forums and started writing some really nasty hurtful comments (this is sometimes known as ‘flaming’). It was hard for me to see those comments – in fact, I felt like I was publicly humiliating myself. Some of the comments were truly horrible. I felt awful. I was just wishing that the world would swallow me whole!
It would have been very easy to let those comments damage my confidence in whether I could keep going on with the Summit but eventually I sobered up to the mental hole I was going down and realised I’d been affected by the negativity bias.
I’d entirely overlooked the many positive comments that I was also receiving – in fact, my business partner had to point out to me that as well as the negative comments, there were lots of lovely comments on the forum too. Some of those comments even came from people who were supporting me in other ways, by replying positively to the critics with even more kind and supportive comments. Amazingly, I had missed the fact that 95% of the comments were actually good – that 5% of upsetting feedback had become all I could see!
As the Summit went on, the feedback became even more positive overall and the ‘flamers’ left. In fact many people shared stories and feedback throughout the Summit that was incredibly moving.
From then on I made sure that I spent time reading through the positive feedback too, so that I could see things more clearly. It was an important realisation for me to know that the negativity bias was skewing my perception of reality – it was just making me highlight the small number of things that were unpleasant.
HOW TO COUNTER YOUR NEGATIVITY BIAS
You can see how this negativity bias can create a lot of inner turmoil. We can easily start to feel like we, our partner or our lives are not good enough when we ruminate on what’s not going well and the negative. You can see how we can gradually become plagued by negativity, resentments and bitterness.
So how do we counter this negativity bias? How can we start to see life in a more balanced way? Here is the great news. Over time, with a bit of practice we can change the negativity bias and even totally rewire our brains to see things in a more balanced way – as a neuroscientist might say, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, the more time you give training your brain to take in the good, the more it becomes and ingrained way of being.
TAKING IN THE GOOD: A THREE STEP PROCESS TO USE DAILY
Rick Hanson has a wonderful technique I’d like to share that can help you reshape your brain’s neural pathways. It will help you allow your positive emotions to sink in and balance out your negativity bias.
The technique has three basic stages.
- First he advises us to deliberately seek out good experiences each day. They can be simple, like appreciating the beauty in your garden, enjoying a nice cup of tea or coffee or feeling the sun on your skin. So you deliberately want to cultivate these moments of taking in good in your life. This helps you to activate your brain and start the process of taking in the good.
2. Secondly you want to then enrich the experience. To do this stay with the good experience for at least five seconds. Open up to the body sensations, feelings and all that is happening in the moment. Drink in the the good experience fully, letting it fill your mind and body and build in intensity.
As you do this, the experience will move from your short-term to your long-term memory which is important in rewiring your brain to take in more good. This may take a little time, as you want to truly connect with these feelings. Allow the experience to sink into your being as you truly engage with it. Feel the joy as you appreciate and savour the experience within you.
3. The third step is to then absorb the experience. Allow the experience to really sink in. Set the intention to make it feel part of you and take it with you in memory.
This technique can be used to help you truly appreciate and enjoy the positive moments in your life. The more we take in the good, the more we can see and experience life in a more balanced way. It’s not that we ignore negative experiences and we won’t stop bad things from happening as they are a natural part of life…but we can take control of how we perceive them so that we don’t become overwhelmed by that negativity bias.
So today and for the rest of this week, see if you can focus on taking in the good like this. Taking a moment to consider now… What are some good aspects in your daily life that you don’t usually notice? What is beautiful that you can appreciate and enjoy and savour as you go about your days?
As you cultivate this capacity for taking in the good you’ll notice a shift in your perceptions towards a more positive view of life. You’ll likely also experience a new lightness of heart and mind and a little more joy and wonder flowing into your days.