Negativity Bias And How Evolution Has Hardwired Us To Be Anxious, Worried And Stressed

And learning to overcome it

Here’s a question for you — how have you been this past week?

If you are like 99% of people on the planet, your answer inadvertently is “busy”. Busy is the tune that everyone dances to. Somewhere along the last 50,000 years, it has become uncool to say and be “not busy”. This busy-ness is not without consequences. If I ask you the same question after giving you a drink of veritaserum (truth and nothing but the truth), the answer would likely change to “overwhelmed”, “anxious” or “worried”.

Let’s travel back to the caveman era

Humans have always been worried creatures.

The earliest humans had to live in the jungle with hundreds of species of animals who were all too happy to eat them whole. They had to defend themselves against the threats that appeared left, right and center while not having the strength of the elephant or the speed of the cheetah or the sharp claws of the lion.

They did not have a permanent home or readily available food. They were yet to discover the beauty and convenience of agriculture. They did not even know whether food would even be coming or not. Wheels and fire were still centuries away. With so many uncertainties in the environment, it made sense for those people to be anxious.

Photo by Niilo Isotalo on Unsplash

In a sharp contrast, today we have all the comforts. Wheels, fire, and agriculture are already in extensive use. Smartphones, internet, and airplanes have connected us like never before. We have the comfort of our concrete-made-very-solid homes and most of us know that our next meal will be taken care of. There is no danger from predators like lions and leopards. Yet we are still anxious. It doesn’t make sense or does it?

A peek into our brains

While in the early environment, our brains evolved with only one function — survival. And this made sure that the early humans preferred anxiety and worry. This may seem counterintuitive now but when the only other choice is death… you take what you can get.

“A woman in a lace blouse holding up a globe in front of her head” by Slava Bowman on Unsplash

Imagine two people — laid-back Lou and worrier Wilda. Worrier Wilda saw a patch of brown grass and thought it must be a lion. She ran to save her life. Laid-back Lou was sure that it was only grass, so he stood his ground and didn’t run. Although worrier Wilda’s anxiety was false anxiety, it didn’t exactly hurt her because the next time she saw something brown in the grass and it turned out to be a lion, she was the one who ran while laid-back Lou was sure it was still a patch of brown grass up and until the moment the lion closed in on him and ate him.

Worrier Wilda made ONE error and so did laid-back Lou but guess who remained on Earth to spread her genes. You guessed right, it was worrier Wilda. Although worry made Wilda second guess herself on a number of situations and generally make a fool of herself every time she ran when there was not a lion, she was also the one to run when there was a lion.

Put simply, worry aided survival. And our brain had only one function — survival. So it’s not surprising that we all became worriers like worrier Wilda. Anyone who was even a bit like laid-back Lou was eaten up and could not be around to spread his genes.

While we are not continuously avoiding lions in the present moment, our brains still act the way of Wilda. After all, we all are carrying her genes. We are all worried and stressed creatures.

How anxiety works

Whenever our brain spots a threat in our environment, we begin to start worrying. This is followed by a physiological response according to the response that our brain decides is the most appropriate. There are three responses — fight, flee or freeze.

If the brain chooses to fight, blood flows to the arms to aid you in fighting. If the brain chooses flight, blood flows to your legs to aid you in running faster than your normal capability. If the brain chooses freeze, then you freeze and assess the situation further.

What’s fascinating is that all of this happens within seconds. This tendency of the brain is super useful when it comes to survival and therefore has been passed down to us. But it has a downside and a major one at that.

The brain acts this way whenever it spots a perceived threat. That’s right — it cannot differentiate between perceived threats and actual threats. While this was important in our hunter-gatherer days, it has lost its appeal now. Because in today’s world, perceived threats are literally everywhere. Your boss hinted at his disapproval on the report you worked weekends and nights, anxiety response is triggered. Your friend casually suggested that you might have gained some of that weight back, boom, the anxiety response is triggered.

While the environment is all different now, our brains have failed to account for the newness of the environment. They are still playing catch-up.

Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

Negativity bias

The tendency of our brain to focus on survival has given rise to what is called the negativity bias. Negativity bias is the tendency of our brains to focus more on and clearly remember the negative than the positive.

“The negativity bias is the phenomena by which humans give more psychological weight to bad experiences than a good ones. In fact, some researchers assert that negative emotions have an impact close to 3x stronger than positive emotions.” — Go Strengths Website

You have been a victim of this bias when your supervisor gave you the annual feedback and all you remembered was the one negative point he said. You have been a victim of this bias when you still remember the painful fall in the water when you were five anytime you go near a pool.

The media plays bad news more often than good news because you are more sensitive to negativity. You seek it out.

“You would hear a rustle in the leaves and you would think tiger, not wind and the point — one percent of the time that it was a tiger it saved your life, but today the amygdala (a part of brain) literally calls our attention to all the negative stories and if you see a thousand stories you’re going to focus on the negative ones and the media takes advantage of this and you know the old saw if it bleeds it leads. Well that’s why 90% of the news in the newspaper and on television is negative because that’s what we pay attention to.” — Big Think (Why We Love Bad News)

Overcoming negativity bias

It is impossible to overcome negativity bias but the severity can be lessened. Because negativity bias is directly responsible for 90% of your anxiety, worry and stress, trying to lessen the intensity of this cognitive bias is a worthwhile endeavor.

The first step obviously is to understand when your brain is filtering out the positive information and only retaining the negative information. Once you understand that your brain is playing tricks on you by only presenting you a limited view of the reality, the second step is to try and get a wholesome picture of the situation before taking any action.

Knowing that your brain doesn’t register positive events as acutely, please take a moment to smell the roses before focusing on the thorns again. It will also help to practice intentional gratitude at the end of each day to ease your brain into remembering and holding on to some positive experiences that have happened throughout the day.

Even though our brains are attuned to negativity, I urge you not to take this article negatively because I really wish that you start thinking about the positive too. If you still take this negatively, well that would be the ultimate irony.


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