Do you find it hard to shake off a bad comment, even if it’s followed by one hundred good ones? The negativity bias could be to blame.
It’s reasonable to say that, on average, we have more good things than bad things happen to us on a daily basis. But if you struggle to shake off that one bad nuggest nestled among all the good moments in your day, you can rest in the knowledge that you’re not alone.
No matter how often we’re told to “look on the bright side” and “think positive”, there’s an unavoidable truth we all have to face: humans are inherently negative.
This tendency to focus on the darker side of things – often termed the negativity effect or negativity bias – is a universal experience for all of us. Ever found yourself focusing on the one negative comment you received on your work, even though the five others are all really positive? Maybe you’ve returned from a dream holiday, only to remember that row you had with your partner at dinner than one night?
According to Roy Baumeister, the author of a new book The Power Of Bad: How The Negativity Effect Rules Us And How We Can Rule It, the negativity bias is even more influential in our day to day lives than we could even imagine.
Appearing on The Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast on 10 January, host Ian Sample asked the social psychologist what areas of our life the negativity bias influences, and his answer was incredibly honest.
“It might be easier to come up with a short list of things that aren’t affected,” Baumeister admitted. “If you have a good day you feel good, and if you have a bad day you feel bad, but the bad day tends to carry over into the next day, while the good day doesn’t. So good things wear off much more rapidly.”
He continued: “In financial decisions, people are more upset about losing £50 than they’re happy about gaining £50, and indeed they’ll alter and distort their decision processes – economists call it loss aversion – with an irrational bias to minimise losses, even though it’s often better to take a little bit more of a chance and pursue the big gain.”
Baumeister also explained how the negativity effect can influence our relationships, where instead of focusing on all the good things our partner has to offer, we’re more likely to focus – and obsess over – one bad trait.
And as it turns out, our tendency to focus on the bad things and overlook all the positive bits of life is actually the result of evolution. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it – when we were running away from predators and fighting to survive on a day to day basis, it was in our best interests to focus on the threats around us.
“If there’s a dangerous predator and you don’t recognise it because you don’t see it and don’t classify it, well, that’s the end,” Baumeister explains. “Whereas if there’s an opportunity for great food or some other wonderful experience and you miss it, it’s too bad, but it’s not going to have any huge lasting effect on you.”
The good news is this: there is a way to overcome the negativity bias.
Although it may take a bit of extra effort (you’re literally retraining the way your brain thinks), it’s possible to loosen the negative grip on your thought patterns by being more self-aware, challenging negative self-talk and taking the time to practice mindfulness. So next time you go to complain about the one bad moment in your day, turn around that focus and pick something positive.
You can thank us later.