by Maria Porsfelt, Yoga & Tantra Teacher
“The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?” – Pretty Woman (1990)
Have you ever noticed how the ‘bad stuff’ is easier to believe? And how when you are ‘too happy’ you start to look for what might go wrong? Have you noticed how we often think we are being realistic if we look at something in a negative way? It is said that a pessimist always calls himself a realist. This actually expresses a psychological truth – that the ‘bad stuff’ IS easier to believe, and even attracts our attention more than good feelings and experiences do. This is called negative bias.
Studies have shown that negative news is more likely to be perceived as truthful. And as negative information draws greater attention, it can also be seen as having greater validity. This might be why bad news seems to garner more attention, and we only need to look at news headlines over any given week to know that the latter is true. Drama and scandal make the most delicious gossip.
We all want to be happy, so why do we seem to look for the negative, and for reasons to feel bad? The explanation has a lot to do with evolution – or lack thereof, depending on the perspective! Keeping an eye out for possible dangers and threats was very useful for our cave dwelling ancestors, and was most likely a condition for survival. Focusing on the whereabouts of local predators or enemies was much more important for staying safe than looking at the beauty of the flowers or a rainbow.
Like the pain response, dwelling on negativity is a way of keeping us safe. And while we no longer need to be on constant high alert as our early ancestors needed to be to survive, negativity bias still has a starring role in the way our brains operate. Research has shown that negative bias can have a wide variety of effects on how people think, respond, and feel.
Negative emotions rouse the amygdala, the almond-shaped brain structure that psychologist Rick Hansen calls, “the alarm bell of your brain.” The amygdala uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences are stored in the memory very quickly, in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in the awareness for twelve seconds or more before they are transferred from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.
Not only do negative experiences imprint on our memory more easily, they also linger longer than positive ones. Generally, we are more likely to dwell on a negative comment or event than we are to take in a compliment or remember the details of a happy event. This negative bias can mean that you focus entirely on a negative aspect, even if the positive is equally or even predominantly present. You might spend a beautiful day with your family or your beloved, but in the end you remember the day mostly because of that one comment they made that bothered you.
Research also suggests that negative bias influences the motivation to complete a task. People have less motivation if the incentive is framed as a means to gain something, than when the same incentive will help them avoid losing something. This can play a role in our motivation to pursue a goal. You are more likely to dwell on what you might have to give up to achieve that goal, or simply feel pushed by a threat of loss in your daily activities, than focus on what you will gain if you keep working towards something, or be inspired by the positive effects that achieving that goal will bring.
To a large extent, emotions make up our life experience. Imagine your life without emotions – seeing a beautiful view or having interactions with the most important people in your life with no emotional response. Emotions transform our world from a series of objective conceptual facts into a living, breathing experience, bringing us joy, sadness, longing, anger, laughter, and love. Emotions bring meaning to our life experiences, and are an important part of what it is to be human. But emotions can of course also be difficult and tormenting, making life very challenging.
With the meaning and depth the emotions you experience bring to your life, they also shape the way you relate to different people and events. Negative bias influences your relationships and your decision making. In relationships, for instance, you will expect the worst of the other, and you will focus on their flaws and mistakes. When making decisions that are influenced by negativity bias we will tend to focus excessively on potential risks, even if the chances for a positive outcome is greater, and then we can lose many great opportunities for filling life with more happiness and abundance.
Considering the huge impact it can have on our quality of life, on our experiences and the choices we make, it is very important to become aware of negative bias and to counteract its effects. And the good news is we can do something to counteract this tendency, that otherwise gains extra power because of its unconscious nature. Thankfully, any habit can be broken, even if it implies a negative attitude or perspective.
How to counter negative bias
- Bring awareness to the ways in which you allow negative bias to impact your life
- Learn to let your attention linger on the positive aspects for longer, so that they transfer to ‘long-term storage’. This requires patience and repetition, as the physiological part of the rewiring takes about 45 days, so consistency is key.
- Remember you have a choice. It’s important to realise how much agency you have in letting bad comments stick with you or not. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Refuse to consent to feeling inferior!
- Be attentive to how you talk to yourself. Our inner dialogue is often very negative. Speak to yourself with the same kindness you would afford a friend.
- In your love relationships make an effort to notice and acknowledge the positive qualities and actions of your beloved, and really savour the beautiful moments.
- In your daily activities focus on and empower positive reasons that inspire you in your actions.
- Make an effort to be at least as interested in success stories and positive news as you are in negative ones.
In time, cultivating these attitudes will create a huge shift in how you perceive life and yourself. From a certain perspective it can be said that emotions are about evolution – biologically and spiritually. Emotions bring our attention to different situations or attitudes. But also profound emotions are said to connect us to our soul, being an expression of our soul, and thus they allow us to discover who we are on a deeper level. But we need to be more aware of our emotions to shift from biological bias to the deep free expression of our soul, to connect to a more authentic way of being.