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Examining The Negativity Bias

Throughout life we can often finds ourselves dwelling on past mistakes, overthinking previous miscalculations and focusing purely on what we could have done better. These self-crushing, yet naturally evolved thoughts, can be highly abundant and powerful.

Coined the ‘negativity bias’, this cognitive shortcut or heuristic used to make fast decisions dramatically impacts the choices and perspectives we draw in life. Described as a “default setting” (Psycom), this is where individuals focus more and home in on negative, adverse and damaging outcomes and events. Playing a major role in the psychology of judgment and decision making, the negativity bias is a naturally occurring psychological phenomena which can lead to emotional responses of regret, rumination, sadness, insecurity and anxiousness.

Research and literature has endeavoured to uncover why such negative and undesirable occurrences are so impactful and long-lasting. Key points of note include:

  • Negative events are more attention grabbing and obvious, as these adverse occurrences lead to a plethora of negative and somewhat harmful emotions. Because of this, humans are naturally wired to remember such damaging events or memories for long periods of time, even if equally positive and beneficial events have also occurred.

  • Due to their increased visibility, negative events are easier to recall and identify, and thus are stored faster within ones in memory bank.

  • As the negativity bias causes individuals to recount adverse situations more easily, quickly and frequently, there is a strong tendency for such negative events, and their impacts, to linger and last longer.

  • Interestingly the bias can also impact our relationships with others. When meeting new people and forming first impressions we unconsciously expect to see negative, undesirable traits and characteristics. This is because we expect to see the ‘bad’ side of a person, as this is easier to recognise and remember (Cherry, 2020).

  • On a more personal level, other potential impacts and effects of the negativity bias can include: a susceptibility of recalling insults rather than praise, difficulty in building trust with others and a reluctance in accepting constructive feedback (Moore, 2021). As negative and undesirable events, situations or outcomes occur individuals respond more emotionally and physically to these unwanted stimuli. Consequently, in response to receiving fair constructive feedback for example, individuals may dismiss any positive notions and ‘hear’ only the bad. In this way, the negativity bias influences, and to some extent skews, people’s beliefs about their own abilities, performances and competency (Muller-Pinzler et al, 2019).

Speculation and theoretical links can be drawn as to why dyslexics may be more prone and susceptible to negative thinking and negativity bias. Amongst dyslexics there can be a tendency for individuals to be self-conscious and potentially embarrassed of their abilities, what they perceive as being bad at or unable to do. In this way, the negativity bias can be amplified within the dyslexic population as they can experience more negative and damaging emotions and feelings about themselves.

However, it is vital to note that it’s not all doom and gloom when considering the negativity bias. As the bias highlights where improvements and changes can be made this internal guidance can be used in a positive, self-constructive light. When a situation doesn’t quite go the way it was planned or not quite the right decision is made it can be hard to take away a positive and beneficial message. This is because it is so much easier to dwell and ruminate on what has gone ‘wrong’. Alternatively, being aware of mistakes or slight miscalculations paves a route for one to learn and develop from these negative experiences. This a bit of a clique phrase, but as we no longer can control or impact the past, the best we can do is remain motivated and aim to improve and grow within ourselves for the future.

Managing the Negativity Bias

To help support others vast writings exist outlining how individuals can manage day-to-day the impacts of the negativity bias.

  1. “Challenge self-talk” (Moore, 2021), refers to one being able to try to recognise their own negative thinking patterns and then try to combat, contest and question whether these unhelpful thoughts are actually true, accurately reflect the situation and how they can be managed or rectified. When you start to notice negative thoughts, such as I can’t do this, it can be useful to replace these notions with more constructive and helpful thoughts. This can include, do I actually need to worry about this? Or I will try this task and see how I fair.

  2. Consider and weigh up the positive and negative outcomes of a situation, as often not all impacts of a situation are bad or damaging. Subsequently, it is extremely beneficial to note, recognise and saver all positive and encouraging outcomes; regardless of how small or menial they may appear (Psycom). Crucially, this does not mean that one should dismiss or ignore a negative outcome (Cherry, 2020). As recognising and acknowledging a negative outcome allows us to consider ways to move forward, understand why undesirable outcomes have occurred and to drive us to strive to improve for future situations.

  3. Discover and explore ways to relax and take yourself away from an over-analysing state of mind or situation. As to be expected, different strategies work for different people. Examples of cathartic and rejuvenating activities can include: listening to music, watching a favourite TV show or film, going or a walk or run, immersing into a good book or delving into an old nostalgic video game.

  4. A useful tool that I have adopted over the years is to speak to myself as if I were talking to a close friend or family member who has come to me with a problem. I think to myself, “what would I say or advise them”? Often we give good advice to others, but then may not actually take on board our own advice. This can be a highly useful tool as you can be indirectly open with yourself; of which can help keep one grounded and assured.

As has been explored, the negativity bias is a natural and common psychological process within human existence. By the very nature of the bias, it can be easy to unconsciously focus and consider merely damaging or undesirable events and outcomes that have occurred in one’s life. Hypothetical links between dyslexics and the negativity bias can made; exploring why dyslexics may experience higher levels of adverse emotions. Crucially though, helpful messages to take away can be applied to all. To combat difficult feelings useful tools to help manage such overwhelming negative feelings can be explored, tried and adjusted to best suit all individuals.

Useful Links

Cherry, K. (2020). What is The Negativity Bias?

Moore, C. (2021). What Is The Negativity Bias and How Can it be Overcome?

Muller-Pinzler, L et al. (2019). Negativity-Bias in Forming Beliefs About Our Own Abilities, Scientific Reports, 9(14416).

Psycom. The Negativity Bias: Why The Bad Stuff Sticks

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