Negativity Bias

A phrase many of us have often heard is “think positive.” Be it from a concerned friend, a family member or a colleague, it seems to be the automatic response from most people when bad situations arise. With such sage words in mind, why is it that we need to be reminded to consider the positive so often? Today we will explore the idea of negativity bias and why our brains seem to be wired to think or dwell upon the bad things.

To start, negativity bias is an idea that humans will focus on the negative circumstances of a scenario even if there are positive ones present. Think of an example where you have received an evaluation at work or university and the assessor points out several points of praise and three points of criticism; the human mind will ignore the positive points of praise and focus on the three negatives provided sometimes for extended periods of time.

The reason for this is actually linked to evolution. Our ancestors became trained in the art of risk assessment in the sense that they may have seen some rustling in the bushes and decided that the berries on that bush were not worth the risk of being eaten by a wild animal. That very notion was used throughout the generations and now our brains are imprinted with the same risk assessment which leans towards a more negative stand point. Of course this mechanism was essential or none of us would be here right now however the risks that we face today are much less life threatening than those our ancestors faced.

So now that we have established an understanding of negativity bias, how does it affect our lives?

Excepting the worst at all times, only taking the negative from a situation and not taking risks can have a very negative effect on the body. Of course one should always be reasonable with risks but take for example someone who has been in a bad relationship, if they meet a new person who treats them very well but they are unwilling to take the risk of establishing something new then they will lose out on a very positive experience.

In Chinese Medicine, dwelling (in general) and thinking all the time will affect your digestion by means of the spleen, liver (frustration/negative feelings/anger) stomach and large intestine. These digestive symptoms can range from bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, an alternation of both, reflux, weight management issues and many more.

Now that we have explored the damaging effects of negativity bias, are there ways to break out of the cycle?

The best course of action is to change how you think, it echos the “think positive” phrase but is much more actionable.

To begin, you should accept that every situation has a positive and negative side. For example: starting a new relationship with someone amazing means less time to yourself in exchange for love and support; starting a new job means new experiences, better income but at the cost of extended travel time and time away from family.

Secondly be grateful for the positive aspects that are present. Using the above examples – in a new relationship, be grateful that you have the opportunity to discover new adventures with someone you care about; in a new job be grateful for the opportunity to work towards your goals and dreams even if the job itself is a financial stepping stone.

Finally look at the negative parts as learning experiences. Once more with the above examples: if the relationship happens to break apart, perhaps you have learned something about yourself and are able to grow stronger from it by not repeating the same mistakes next time around; if your job does not work out then at least you learned a new skill set that acts as a building block towards your actual goal as no skill is ever useless.

Making the above changes to your thinking will yield excellent results but they will take time. A quote to consider “Happiness does not lead to gratitude but gratitude does lead to happiness.” Even outside the realm of particular situations, be grateful fo the things you do have and your prescriptive on life will change for the better.

Other things to consider reading for those interested in mental health include sunk cost fallacy and automated negative thoughts.

If you or anyone you know needs a helping hand breaking out of this cycle, please contact us.

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