Negativity bias is the tendency to place more emphasis on the negatives than the positives.
The morning rolls, and you wake up so early that you can shut off your alarm before it activates. You had the perfect amount of sleep, so you leap out of bed and sweep open the curtains to reveal a glorious sunrise peeking over the horizon. You recall that the forecast was excellent. Looks like it’s going to be a wonderful day.
Eager to get going, you dress and head outside for a brisk walk, and you can feel your spirit soaring on the perfect breeze — but then you notice that your neighbor’s dog has left an unwelcome gift on your driveway. It isn’t a big problem, of course, since you can clean it up with ease. But it’s so irksome. Why didn’t your neighbor train their dog better?
You shake your head and move on with your walk, but even as you get into a rhythm and see the sliver of sunlight bloom into a magnificent glow, you feel so sour. Is it so much to ask that a dog owner be responsible? You’d never have let your dog do that on their property. And isn’t it a perfect example of social conduct today? Do what you want, no matter how it affects others.
At this point you’re clenching your fist ever so slightly, and you head back home knowing that it’s going to be a terrible day. How could it be anything else after such a frustrating start? What you may accept subconsciously — but be unable to control — is that you’re suffering from a terrible case of negativity bias.
- How negativity bias can ruin your days
- Examples of negativity bias
- 3 signs that you’re developing a negativity bias
How negativity bias can ruin your days
Negativity bias, as the name very clearly suggests, is all about placing more emphasis on the negatives than the positives in any given situation, especially when emotions are involved.
In the scenario detailed above, the person described has so much to be positive about as they start their day, but they end up obsessing over something trivial — one small blip.
While you may never have reacted so disproportionately to such a thing, I’m sure you’ve gone through a familiar scenario. Even though you’re in a good situation by any objective measure, you end up driving yourself to distraction thinking about the one thing that’s wrong. It’s a horrible feeling, and it’s tremendously difficult to escape from it.
As for why this happens, it will surely depend on the person and the context surrounding each incident, but there are two broad root causes that have some weight behind them:
1. People like having excuses to complain:
This may sound silly, but it’s true. It’s generally more satisfying to wax lyrical about all the inconveniences you’ve been facing, with stories growing in potency as you ramp up the drama. It doesn’t help that living in the social media age has turned complaining into a norm.
Additionally, talking at length about positive events can push people away from you, making you seem braggadocious. With negativity being the safer option, it can lead us to shape our day-to-day narratives around all the bad things.
2. Self-preservation encourages catastrophizing:
This has to be the primary reason by a wide margin. The incremental process of evolution that spawned humanity gave us various things, and our tendency to catastrophize is one of the most useful.
Suppose a primitive hunter hears a strange noise in the jungle. Could it be a peaceful animal, or simply a gust of wind? Of course, but their brain sends them into high alert, insisting that it could be a deadly predator and they have to assume the worst.
After all, assuming the worst in a dangerous natural world is essential for survival. If they discover that it was the wind after all, there was little harm in fearing the worst (with the rise in their stress level is a necessary component). But if they discover that the noise was a fearsome predator, they won’t be caught with their guard down.
Our daily lives in the modern world aren’t quite this dangerous, with huge stretches of extreme comfort and safety. Yet, we’re still physically geared towards hair-trigger pattern-recognition with our fight-or-flight adrenal systems. Because positive surprises aren’t threats, we forget them rather easily — but when negative surprises come along, our minds cling to those experiences to project us.
Examples of negativity bias
Though the bias is straight forward to understand, here are a few examples of how it manifests in real life
- Remembering one bad dish from the meal while the entire cuisine tasted delicious
- Judging a person for one bad quality instead of admiring the good
- Holding a grudge against a known person because of words misspoken once
3 signs that you’re developing a negativity bias
Now that we’ve covered what negativity bias involves, we can proceed to the titular matter. In this context, we’re talking about the damaging kind of negativity bias — the kind that can ruin your mind and hold you back from delivering on your potential in the workplace or living a fulfiling personal life.
Here we go, then. What are the early signs of negativity bias? What things indicate that you’re heading down this counterproductive road? Let’s run through some of them, and consider as we do how you can overcome them (allowing you to be even-handed or even effusively positive).
1. You’re feeling less appreciative of the positives:
Most people have various things that bring them joy on a regular basis, and the people who manage to be incredibly positive (to the point of being irritating to the mortal folk) can list tens or even hundreds of these things, ranging from major to minor. They feel immense appreciation.
Just think of how many things the internet alone brings to your day: things that people living in the pre-internet world would have donated organs to receive. Anything you want to know is there to be found within a handful of clicks. You can bring up programs that allow you to draw freely with no paper or materials needed.
Oh, and you can play games. Even the average professional has the time and access to play games wherever they go (my habitual weakness is playing solitaire on Arkadium: no competition, no immense complexity, just the rhythmic bliss of alternating colors).
Yet it’s so easy to stop appreciating all the great things about our lives.
How do you overcome this?
There are two things you should do. Firstly, you should try to adjust your perspective through careful contemplation. Take note of how little some people have, and accept that many would be ecstatic to share your circumstances. Secondly, you should consider whether your hobbies are truly right for you.
Perhaps something you once enjoyed now bores you because you craved challenge and aren’t getting it. If so, the issue is that you’re expecting the wrong things to make you happy.
Change things up. Try a new hobby, a new situation, or a new challenge. Find things that truly bolster your mood, and you’ll find that negativity plagues you rather less.
2. You’re fixating on issues you can’t control:
We often like to think that we have control over our lives, and we often do — but not always. There are plenty of things that just happen, with no lessons to learn or corrective resolutions to be made.
Deaths in your family, for instance, or freak injuries, or out-of-nowhere economic downturns (surely there are some people who have control over those, but you’re not among them).
When things go wrong, you can dwell on them to a distracting extent. Your mind can swirl with possibilities. How bad might things get? Is there still hope? How will each of the many repercussions have further repercussions that will affect you?
Your mind can essentially be locked in an effort to somehow solve the problem through cognition. You assume it will get out of your head as soon as you find an answer. Well, it won’t (obviously).
The more time you spend thinking about all the issues you can’t solve, the less time you’ll have to consider the problems you can address.
And make no mistake: that is a motivating factor because obsessing over things you can’t change only mounts the pressure on you. You don’t need to look back and feel like a failure because you didn’t make a difference. You never had the opportunity to.
How do you overcome this?
Again, the solution is twofold. Firstly, stop overthinking, and make a concerted effort to let these issues go.
You’ve given them plenty of time, and now you need the mental space. Que sera, sera. After that, focus on the things you can change in your life and the lives of those you care about. What’s something simple that you can achieve today? Positivity breeds positivity, and the key is getting started.
You don’t have anything to look forward to. If this is the case, well, you’re not alone. Most of the things people like to anticipate are somewhat difficult to line up. Depending on circumstances, it might not be viable to schedule an international trip, or even to slot a barbeque into your calendar.
And without anything to anticipate, your days can start to blur together, leading you to feel dissatisfied with your life in general. You’re working, yes, but you’re not working towards anything. So when something comes along that annoys you, you have no promise of anything better with which you can counter its effects.
How do you overcome this?
Quite simply, you need to find things to look forward to (however contrived).
Knowing that something positive is coming up makes the daily grind so much easier to bear, and can give you the equilibrium to brush off those trivial incidents that can otherwise sour your mood. OK, your new work project isn’t going so well — but you have something fun planned for the weekend. Just get through the week and you’ll feel better.
All the solutions to combat negative bias involves better mindfulness is some shape or form.
Everyone gets negative sometimes. That’s something you can’t avoid, no matter how frequently you meditate, how many books of Zen wisdom you read, or how much you fill your days with sources of positivity. Maybe you can solve that, but it isn’t a problem you need to solve in the first place.
Developing a debilitating negativity bias, however, needs the medicine of your actions. If you put much of your mental resources towards the minor things that go wrong each day, you’ll miss everything that’s great about life, and you’ll never feel good enough to make constructive decisions.
By looking out for the signs covered here, and drawing upon the suggestions provided, you can make it significantly harder for negativity bias to get in your way. Good luck!
Laura May is a Digital Editor at Just Another Magazine. She launched the magazine with co-founder Stevie last year and is probably at her happiest when she is writing or editing articles.
Laura loves exploring the world too — she grew up in the UK, but used to live in California and takes any chance she can get to book a flight somewhere new and exciting!
When she’s not globetrotting, Laura finds topics around wellbeing fascinating — whether it’s mental health, physical fitness or our relationships with other people.