Negativity Bias explains why we have a greater tendency to think negative thoughts.
Do you live in a cave of dark, negative thinking? Negative opinions? Negative judgements? Negative self-talk?
Can you see the sun shining on a beautiful world just outside the opening that you just can’t seem to access?
We have our cave-dwelling ancestors to thank for our tendency to pay more attention to negative rather than positive information.
Our ability to detect danger was the key to our survival. A matter of life and death.
“We inherited the genes that predispose us to give special attention to those negative aspects of our environments that could be harmful to us,” explains psychologist and happiness researcher Timothy J. Bono, PhD.
Our tendency to focus more intensely on the negative performs a similar function to recognizing pain in our bodies.
Both are intended to grab our attention. Fast.
It’s our early warning system that something might be going wrong. Dreadfully wrong.
Negative emotions activate the amygdala, that almond-shaped brain structure also known as our lizard or reptilian brain.
According to psychologist Rick Hansen, PhD, the amygdala “uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory. Positive events and experiences usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.”
Negativity bias is sticky
Not only do negative events and experiences imprint more quickly, but they also linger longer than positive ones according to researcher Randy Larsen, PhD.
This means it’s easier for us to remember an insult or negative situation than to appreciate a compliment or recall details of a happy event.
That’s probably nothing new to you.
Here’s an example that might feel familiar.
You’ve invited your family for dinner and served a lovely meal.
You receive many compliments on the food, the table setting, the ambiance.
But you notice that one guest has hardly touched her meal.
Sneaky thoughts creep up on you. Was something wrong with the meal? Where the vegetables overcooked, undercooked? The meat too cold?
If only you had timed the cooking better.
You try to shake off the negative thoughts, but they persist.
And crowd out the memories of the sparkling conversation, the glow of your guests faces in the flickering candlelight, the music.
You may end up remembering the dinner just for that particular worry. And forget all the lovely aspects of the evening.
Men and women register negative comments differently
Women are much more likely to internalize them in the form of sadness or depression.
Men are more likely to externalize them as with outward anger.
How can you manage the tendency toward negativity bias?
Although negativity bias is hard-wired in our brains, you can learn to override this default setting.
How you talk to yourself about your experiences matters.
It’s always a good idea to value all the good and positive aspects of your life, no matter how insignificant they seem to be at the moment.
Moments matter. They add up.
When faced with situations with many negative aspects, you may be easily flooded with negative emotions.
- Call a “timeout” on your negative thinking.
- Imagine yourself physically standing in the middle of your negative thinking.
- Visualize yourself stepping out of the center and standing on the periphery of the thought.
- See yourself as a third person observer.
- Become the disengaged watcher of your emotions.
- Scan the bigger picture and identify and appreciate whatever positive aspects you can find.
- Savor those positive aspects.
More strategies to combat the stickiness of negative thinking and disrupt the evolutionary pattern
- Substitute more neutral or more positive thoughts to change your internal negative dialogue. .
- Cultivate thoughts of kindness and compassion.
- Talk to yourself as you would a dear friend, with warmth and concern.
- Engage in a hobby or habit that keeps you from over-analyzing, like reading, exercising, calling a friend.
- Create a music playlist that makes you feel happy.
- Cultivate curiosity and patience with your default tendency.
- Ask yourself powerfully helpful questions:
- How is this situation happening for my benefit rather than to hurt me?
- What can this situation teach me to improve the quality of my life?
- How is this exactly what should be happening?
- Remind your brain that you’re onto it and don’t need to listen to negative thinking.
It’s important to remember how much agency you have in permitting negative thinking to wrack your brain.
As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Refuse to banish yourself to the cellar of negativity. Stand strong in the sunlight of more helpful, less hurtful, thoughts.
Need help corralling your negative thinking?
What are some recurring negative thoughts you’d like to banish?
Let’s talk about it.
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