🧠 The Negativity Bias

Your brain loves the dark side

A couple of weeks ago, a psychotherapist asked me a question that stuck in my mind: “Unhappy thoughts ruin a good mood all the time, so in the same way, why can’t you fix a bad mood by thinking of happy thoughts?”

When you’re happy or proud of something, it’s easy to put a stop to it by thinking of an anxiety or irritation. But when you’re sad or anxious, “thinking happy thoughts” just seems fake and futile. Why this asymmetry?

🧲 Negativity is magnetic

Human psychology is filled with cognitive biases and one prominent example is the negativity bias. Negative emotional information commands our attention more than positive emotional information does. As psychologists Rozin & Royzman put it in their 2001 paper: “Brief contact with a cockroach will usually render a delicious meal inedible. The inverse phenomenon—rendering a pile of cockroaches on a platter edible by contact with one’s favorite food—is unheard of.”

Emotions like anger, fear, and disgust signal a threat. They drive immediate action by stimulating fight-or-flight responses, in contrast to positive emotions like happiness which lack a sense of urgency. This asymmetry in urgency plays out everywhere in life. For example, criticism attracts more attention than praise does. And when hanging out with friends, the emotional impact of arguments is stronger than the emotional impact of joyful interactions. Negativity is the dominant emotional force in controlling attention and decision-making.

Negativity biases impact the way we interpret the world around us. In one experiment, people with a stronger negativity bias were more likely to judge ambiguous facial expressions as sad rather than happy. And those people also showed higher activity in a region of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex—an area linked with problems such as depression and anxiety among other important functions.

This image from a 2009 research paper by Beevers et al. shows happy and sad faces computationally morphed together to create a range from 0% sad to 100% sad. The faces at 50% are ambiguous since they sit right in the middle of the range. Do you see more happiness or sadness in those faces? Seeing more sadness might be a sign of a stronger negativity bias.

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👶 Negativity runs deep

Even babies show a negativity bias. If a parent reacts negatively to a toy, an observant toddler is less likely to play with it. But positive reactions from a parent elicit no extra play compared to completely neutral reactions. Kids treat negativity as more noteworthy than positivity, just like their adult parents do.

Infants as young as 3 months old judge people based on how much they help others, and they show a negativity bias in the way they do it. Their behavioral reactions display a clear aversion to antisocial people but don’t show any remarkable attraction to helpful people. The brain’s VIP treatment of negative emotions starts early in life, suggesting that the negativity bias is something we’re born with.

You can see the pervasiveness of the negativity bias by comparing adults across cultures too. All around the world, negative news is more emotionally impactful than positive news. An obsession with infuriating, saddening, and terrifying news isn’t just a quirk of media in the US and Europe, but rather a preexisting tendency in human psychology. Fortunately, individual people vary substantially in the strength of their negativity bias, so there’s always an audience for happier news too.

⭐️ The takeaway

  • Although the negativity bias is widespread and linked to innate principles in human psychology, it’s not universal or unavoidable. There are positivity biases in human psychology too, such as the optimism bias, and people vary in the strength of each of these biases.

  • When you feel unhappy or demotivated, consider whether the reality of the situation is more positive than your perception is suggesting. The negativity bias filters how you see a problem so try to balance it out by actively listing some positives. What are you grateful for? What has gone well? What have you learned?

  • Regular meditation practice can give you a less judgmental view of the world. Fittingly, there’s evidence that mindfulness training reduces the negativity bias.

💡 A final quote

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

~ Oscar Wilde


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Until next time,

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

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