Five Strategies to Combat Negativity Bias

It hijacks your brain naturally

Our days are filled with a variety of experiences. A quick review of your experiences would find they fall into three simple categories—positive, neutral and negative.

Negativity Bias Negative Brain Impact

Let’s say you created a scorecard of your day’s experiences. You concluded that the day contained five positives, seven neutrals and one negative experience or encounters.

Now someone asks you, “How was your day?” Which event is most likely to grab control of your mindshare—the negative one! As smart as we think we are (and we do think we are smart) our brains are wired to process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data—negative sticks like Velcro.

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize and a pioneer in the field of behavior economics explored this conundrum in his best seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman describes it as ‘loss aversion’ describing the fact that we mourn loss more than we enjoy benefit.

“Optimistic people play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are inventors, entrepreneurs, political and military leaders – not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks.”

—Daniel Kahneman

Rarely do we realize how our negativity bias hijacks our brain and affects our outlook on life and our well being.

Seven ways your brain is hijacked:

  • A good day has no lasting effect on the following day—a bad day carries over.
  • We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data, and they affect us longer.
  • Socially, we invest more in avoiding a bad reputation than in building a good one.
  • Emotionally, we go to greater lengths to avoid a bad mood than to experience a good one.
  • In our era of political correctness, negative remarks stand out and seem more authentic.
  • People – even babies as young as six months old – are quick to spot an angry face in a crowd, but slower to pick out a happy one; in fact, no matter how many smiles we see in that crowd, we will always spot the angry face first.
  • Two thirds of English words convey the negative side of things. In the vocabulary we use to describe people, this figure rises to a staggering 74%.

Now if these research nuggets were not enough to get our attention, here is one that I am sure will shock you—you may even reject it (Yes, that persistent negativity bias.)

We are likely to give more credence and more weight to negative claims about positions or candidates that we oppose than we are to positive claims about them.

Bottom line our brains are very good at learning from bad experiences but very bad at learning from good ones. So, if our brains are built with greater sensitivity to negative news, experiences and feedback at the earliest stage of processing what can we do?

Strategies to combat negativity bias and raise impact: 

  • Rethink your sources and exposure to news.
  • Schedule and manage social media time. Set specific and defined times to engage with social media. By adjusting the settings you can shut off streams of information and content that don’t support growth in your most important roles and goals.
  • Build focus time into your schedule to fully concentrate your time and attention on completing projects and building relationships that lend themselves to raising your personal and professional impact.
  • Be mindful of any tendency toward putting on rose-colored glasses or ignoring real and vital information and input. Develop an attitude of critical and informed thinking.
  • Hard-wire your positive experiences. Our brain is wired with short-term memory buffers. As a result, it takes 10 to 20 seconds for a positive experience to be transferred to our long-term memory. Identify a positive experience, close your eyes and reimagine it for up to a minute.

You were created for impact—uniquely positioned to positively impact the people we love and lead. The race for impact will never be easy—life doesn’t work that way. Delivering impact requires intentionality and diligence in order to break through the resistance. We don’t have to worry or concern ourselves with being aware of danger and risk—our brain’s default setting guarantees it.

“Staying with a negative experience past the point that’s useful is like running laps in Hell: You dig the track a little deeper in your brain each time you go around it.”

—Rick Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness

Positively impacting the people we love and the teams we lead rises when we become aware of the obstacles and respond by making effective changes in how we think and execute our race plan.