What Is Negativity Bias, and How Does It Affect You?

Things to consider

We humans have a tendency to give more importance to negative experiences than to positive or neutral experiences. This is called the negativity bias.

We even tend to focus on the negative even when the negative experiences are insignificant or inconsequential.

Think of the negativity bias like this: You’ve checked into a nice hotel for the evening. When you enter the bathroom, there’s a large spider in the sink. Which do you think will be a more vivid memory: the fine furnishings and luxury appointments of the room, or the spider you encountered?

Most people, according to a 2016 article for Nielsen Norman Group, will remember the spider incident more clearly.

Negative experiences tend to affect people more than positive ones. A 2010 article published by the University of California, Berkeley quotes psychologist Rick Hanson: “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

Why do people have a negativity bias?

According to psychologist Rick Hanson, a negativity bias has been built into our brains based on millions of years of evolution when it comes to dealing with threats.

Our ancestors lived in difficult environments. They had to gather food while avoiding deadly obstacles.

Noticing, reacting to, and remembering predators and natural hazards (negative) became more important than finding food (positive). Those who avoided the negative situations passed on their genes.

How does the negativity bias show?

Behavioral economics

One of the ways negativity bias is evident is that people, according to another 2016 article for Nielsen Norman Group, is risk aversion: People tend to guard against losses by giving greater significance to even small probabilities.

The negative feelings from losing $50 are stronger than the positive feelings of finding $50. In fact, people will commonly work harder to avoid losing $50 than they will to gain $50.

While humans may not need to be on constant high alert for survival like our ancestors, negative bias can still affect how we act, react, feel, and think.

For example, older research points out that when people make decisions, they put greater importance on the negative event aspects than on the positive. This can affect choices and willingness to take risks.

Social psychology

According to a 2014 article, negativity bias can be found in political ideology.

Conservatives tend to have stronger physiological responses and devote more psychological resources to negatives than liberals do.

Also, in an election, voters are more likely to cast their vote for a candidate based on negative information about their opponent as opposed to their candidate’s personal merits.

How to overcome negativity bias

Even though it appears that negativity is a default setting, we can override it.

You can increase positivity by being mindful of what is and isn’t important in your life and focus on valuing and appreciating the positive aspects. It’s also recommended that you break the pattern of negative reactions and allow positive experiences to register deeply.

The bottom line

It would appear that humans are hardwired with a negativity bias, or the tendency to put greater weight on negative experiences than on positive experiences.

This is evident in behavior of experiencing positive feelings, like from finding unexpected cash being outweighed by the negative feelings from losing it.

This is also evident in social psychology, with voters in an election being more likely to vote based on negative information about a candidate’s opponent than on their candidate’s personal merits.

In general, there are ways to alter your negativity bias by focusing on the positive aspects of your life.

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