Blog Short #19: The “Negativity Bias”: Why it’s hard to stay positive.

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

Today’s subject is about something called the “negativity bias.” You may already know what it means, but keep reading. I’m going to tell you more about how it works, why, and what you can do to counteract it.

Let’s start with a couple of examples.

(This is you as a kid.) You bring home your report card to your parents and you have five As and one C. Your Mom looks at the grades, looks up at you, and says,” What’s this C? What happened?”

Your partner leaves his dirty clothes on the bed – again – for you to pick up and put in the laundry room. You think of everything he’s ever done that annoys you for hours until you’re furious.

You’re having a fabulous day. Everything’s going well, you’re getting a lot done at work, you feel good. Then you’re in a meeting and the boss gives you a sideways glance when talking about an issue he’s upset about. Your day’s ruined. It’s all you can think about, and when you get home and your husband asks you how your day was, you say “Horrible!” You don’t even know if your boss was referencing you in terms of the issue he mentioned, but you assume the absolute worst.

The Definition

I’m sure you can relate to at least one of these examples if not all of them. In each case, a single negative event or thing created a big reaction and overpowered any positives that may have existed. The focus went straight to what was wrong, and very quickly. This is called the “negativity bias.”

It’s defined as:

  • Our tendency to register negative stimuli more readily than positive, and
  • To dwell on the negative aspects of events longer and more intensely.

So not only do we have our antenna up for the negative, but we can’t let go of it all that easily. That’s why we’re prone to falling into negative ruminating.

The Why

Negativity bias has its roots in the structure of our brains. We’re still operating in part as if we live in a primitive world where survival is the prime goal.

Our brains prioritize bad news. We scan the environment for danger, and then when it appears, our emotional brain (the amygdala) takes over and sounds a red alert, thereby overriding our thinking brain located in the prefrontal cortex.

That worked fine when we lived in a primitive setting where being alert to danger was necessary to survive, but that’s not the case now.

Unfortunately, our brains still operate this way, only now we react to symbolic threats such as emotionally charged words that have negative or dangerous connotations like anger, hate, crime, abuse, and many others.

We have similar responses to those words that our primitive tribe had to seeing lions and tigers.

It’s like our antenna starts to vibrate when we hear negative words or phrases, or see frightening or alarming images. Whose ears don’t perk up when they hear a siren, and if your kids are out somewhere away from home, you may begin to ruminate about whether they’re safe, or got into an accident.

We’re primed this way. We’re always watching for those lions and tigers! Only now, these are words and images and memories.

Even more telling are studies that have been done where people are shown negative and positive images while having their brains scanned. As they view the images, the negative or scary images are accompanied by greater neural processing and a larger brain response than that associated with viewing the positive images. What’s negative stands out and captures our attention!

John Gottman, a well-known psychologist who studies marriage, says that it takes upward to 5 times as many positive interactions in a marital relationship to outnumber 1 negative one just to stay in a neutral position. Wow!

What To Do

Here’s 7 things you can do to counteract the negativity bias:

  1. Savor the positive. When something good happens, or you’re feeling happy and well, savor that moment. Make yourself focus on the feeling and remember it. By attending to positive events in a deliberate way, you apply more brain power to them to counterbalance a negative focus. A good tool for this is a gratitude journal. By writing out what’s positive, you imprint it in your mind.
  2. Use mistakes for learning. When you harp on yourself, beat yourself up, or simply chastise yourself for mistakes, you chip away at your self-worth. Recognize mistakes, but focus on learning from them. Recognize, repair, forgive and move on. Vow to do differently in the future and hold yourself to it.
  3. Be your own best friend. Talk to yourself the way you would to a best friend. Ask yourself how your feeling? Are you bothered or hurt about something? What would make you feel better? Show self-compassion.
  4. Reframe cognitive distortions. Negative thinking is very often all-or-nothing. It’s exaggerated. One single negative event becomes a whole day’s worth. Reframe your thoughts to be more in line with reality. “I had a great day, except for one thing that happened.” It’s the exaggerations that lead us astray. For example: (1) You make one error at work, and you imagine you’ll be fired within the week. (2) Your partner was distant last night, and you decide he’s seeing someone else and wants a divorce. (3) Your teenaged son comes home 15 minutes later than expected and in that 15 minutes you’re positive he was in an auto accident and is horribly injured or worse. Use your objective thinking to guide your emoting.
  5. Watch your self-talk, especially negative characterizations of yourself like I’m not smart, I can’t do anything right, I’m not as pretty as she is, I’m too old, I’m just fat! Try reminding yourself of your good qualities, who you are, what you have to offer, and who appreciates you. Make sure that you’re included in that last category too!
  6. Distract yourself from negative ruminations. This is one of the more daunting ones. Our minds latch on to the same negative thought trains over and over. It’s like groundhog day. It happens automatically. When you notice you’re doing it, change your activity. You can simply change to a positive thought train if that works. Or you can do something more distracting like taking a walk, reading a book, engaging in one of your hobbies, or calling a friend and chatting. Each time you notice yourself ruminating, stop it and move to something else. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I tend to ruminate while I’m cooking. It’s very annoying. So now I prime myself before I start cooking to think of something positive, or listen to music, or maybe a podcast.
  7. Meditate or practice square breathing. Square breathing is a quick way to break up thought trains. If you’ve never done it before, you can get instructions by clicking the link below. Meditation has the added benefit of resetting your mind and putting you in a more positive frame.
    ​​SquareBreathing.pdf

That’s all for today. Try to stay positive this week!

All my best,

Barbara

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