Overcoming Negativity Bias Through the Practice of Beauty

Amenia, NY/Photo by Thomas DiMauro

Inside a meditation room I used to visit hung a sign that said, “Don’t believe everything you think.” The first time I saw it, I laughed out loud. My involuntary guffaw drew looks from the others trying to settle down in silence, but at the time, the notion seemed a little silly to me. Until I thought about it.

Years later, I came across a quote from Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. In his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! he says, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” This time I didn’t think it was so funny.

In the intervening time between those two events, it became clear to me that I did not perceive the world as it was, but through a myriad of filters that involuntarily and unconsciously changed the way people and events appeared to me.

Some of these interpretations of the world are neurological while others are cognitive. One of the most insidious ones I noticed, before I even knew what it was called, is negativity bias. It is also called negativity dominance.

I’m sure you’ve experienced having a perfectly good day, except for that one person who does or says one wrong thing and wham! Your day is officially ruined. It’s all you can think about regardless of the nine other things that all went right.

Ever wonder why? Logically it makes no sense. If a football player caught ninety percent of the passes thrown at him he would be an unheard of success. If you scored ninety percent on your tests you’d be considered an A student. If ninety percent of your day went well, shouldn’t it always be considered a good one?

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow he has an entire chapter devoted to negativity dominance. In it he writes: “The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce.”

In other words, we evolved to pay more attention to bad things than good things because bad things usually demand our attention right away. From an evolutionary perspective, there is no downside to mostly ignoring the good things. Whereas ignoring signals even with the slightest possibility of being bad could make you dead.

However, in our modern information age this tendency has become an evolutionary mismatch. Negativity works against us accurately interpreting occurrences in our lives.

As an example, in a paper entitled Bad is stronger than good by Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, and Vohs published in the Review of General Psychology, Vol 5(4), Dec 2001, they cite relationship psychologist, John Gottman.

Gottman’s research has shown that, at least in the area close personal relationships, bad events are about five times more powerful than good events. In other words there have to be five times as many good things versus bad things in order for a relationship to succeed.

The authors of the paper go on to conclude:

“The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. Various explanations such as diagnosticity and salience help explain some findings, but the greater power of bad events is still found when such variables are controlled. Hardly any exceptions (indicating greater power of good) can be found. Taken together, these findings suggest that bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena.”

Now that we know negativity bias is real, the question then becomes, what can we do about it?

First, I think understanding this happens gives us a big advantage. Once you know you aren’t perceiving the world accurately you can figure out ways to work around that.

We know that on any given day, many more good things happen than we realize. In order to notice them more, we have to actively look for them.

I think of this like the cliché aphorism taking time to smell the roses. Whenever I encounter something beautiful or pleasing, I take a few seconds to linger with enjoyment.

On my way into work, I may spend a little time looking at a particularly scenic portion of the highway. During lunch I may slow my eating down and take a little time to smell and taste my meal. When I step outside, I may pause and enjoy the feeling of the breeze or the sun on my skin.

Any of these things taken alone won’t amount to much, but when many of these moments are recognized and given conscious attention repeatedly, day after day, it strips negativity bias of some of its power. It makes life seem to suck less.

Another way to do bring attention to good things is by creating a gratitude list. As hokey as I used to think this idea was, I believe it has real value. A couple of times a year, I write out a top ten list of things to be grateful for. When I look over that list, it makes my life seem to suck less.

Finally, I actively try to bring beauty and enjoyment into my life on a regular basis. That isn’t an endorsement for living la vida loca. Rather, an endorsement of my “deserted island” philosophy.

Since I have limited resources and can’t afford the best of everything, I’ve made a list of about five things I use every day and wouldn’t want to live without. That is, what five things would I want if stranded on a deserted island.

On that list is coffee. I buy a high quality coffee I really enjoy. I brew it in a beautiful French press or stove top espresso maker. I make a great cup of coffee almost daily. I turned this into a ritual and when I sip it makes life seem to suck less.

The other things on my list don’t really matter. They are important to me. The question is what are a handful of things important to you and how can you bring them into your life on a regular basis?

It needn’t be an object or experience, per se. It could be an activity like going for a walk. It needn’t cost anything. That’s not the point. It’s about making your life seem better because it is better than you think it is. So don’t believe everything you think.