That Negativity Bias: How to Flip it for Good

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

We can attribute a lot of good to evolution. Standing up straight, opposable thumbs, blue eyes- I’m all for it. But our natural negative bias is one instance where evolution has not done us a favour.

When I am given a compliment I, of course, appreciate it. For a little while it makes me feel good, it makes me smile. But when someone says something negative about me, whether it’s to my face, behind my back, indirectly- whatever, that sits with me, longer. It takes a toll on my day. It hurts more than a compliment heals and while I pick up and move forward, that comment never completely fades from memory. It is forever sitting there in the back of my mind waiting for some stupid little trigger to remind me of it.

Even reminiscing about my childhood, the stories that stand out, although sometimes laughable in hindsight, are when things didn’t go right. I remember the mistakes, the missteps, forgetting elements in my figure skating program, the embarrassing red face from public speaking in a high school presentation – and the list goes on.

Why is this? Why do negative thoughts, events and details carry more weight than positive ones do? I know I’m not alone in this. It seems to be human nature. So I dove in to find out. What is that negativity all about?

It’s about survival.

Most psychologists and scientists attribute our natural negative bias to evolution. We might be at the top of the food chain now, but how do you think we got here? Being aware of avoiding danger was a critical survival skill and as such, we are now hard-wired to be more heavily influenced by bad news than good. We are trained to constantly be alert and on the lookout for risks and threats. It’s our ancient ancestors faults.

We don’t realize it but subconsciously we are looking for bad news. This causes our brains to process it differently. Bad news or negative experiences are stored into our long-term memory much faster than positive experiences. Negative emotions often require more thinking and analyzing so that information is processed more thoroughly. In fact, some studies show that we need to be consciously aware of a positive experience for a much longer span of time for it to even be transferred over from short-term to long-term memory.

As Dr. Rick Hanson says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

It is even reflected in our language. Some psychologists took to the English language to study how this negative bias has impacted linguistics. There are more negative emotional words than positive. Can you believe that? It makes it even easier to express negative feelings and thoughts.

But it gets worse. Psychologist Minaly Csikszentiminalyi says that our brain’s default setting is to be worried unless otherwise occupied by other thoughts. Perhaps this comes as a side-effect from always being vigilant but this worried setting is part of what allows negative thoughts to be trump. So the key must be to try and worry less, right? Nope. People who have more worrywart tendencies have a hard time putting a positive spin on tough situations creating a backfire effect when they are asked to worry less or think positively. It actually makes them worry more.

So is there a solution?

Always. I’m not going to tell you to simply “focus on the positive”. Quite frankly, I think that angle is overdone. It’s something we hear so often I’m not sure that it’s meaning even resonates anymore. Besides, if it were as simple as that, this wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.

The solution is in recognizing that this negativity is not YOU. It’s just programming. Our brains are trying to take us away from threat and risk — even if it is just a perceived threat. We are always subconsciously preparing for the worst (even if we don’t act on it … but that’s another story you can find, here :P ). But guess what? The worst possible outcome isn’t ALWAYS what happens. Absolutely you will encounter challenges, bumps and obstacles but that doesn’t mean it has to consume you — it’s NOT you.

You don’t have to own this negativity. It’s not yours. You are simply witnesses a pre-programmed (ancient) tape in your head. We get sick of songs from six months ago, well this tape is thousands of years old – it carries the structure and you fill in the gaps with conversations, work, people, health and everything else in your life now that you could be worried about.

So, the next time you catch yourself in a negative loop say ‘cancel’ to your mind. Stop and remind yourself that this is just your lizard brain trying to protect you. If the thoughts in your head can be proven not true, start another train of thought or do any of these things instead: meditate, move, get outside, journal the worries to prove them wrong, get busy. Remember, your mind just fills in empty space when it’s uninspired. This is why being outside in nature is so soothing.

One of the things that turns off the negativity loop almost instantly is something called ‘awe’. When you are met with a vast and beautiful scenery, when you are reminded about how beautiful the world is – your negative mind has no place. It is cancelled out.

Use these tactics to control and manage your monkey mind. We worry and make up so many stories in our head, 90% of which are simply untrue or won’t happen.

‘Cancel, cancel’ and get outside. You got this. Did I mention how beautiful you are today? :)