Have you ever noticed how it’s so much easier to remember the negative events in your life, or how when something bad happens, that the sadness or bad mood can hang around for a few days? It’s not your fault – it’s your brain! Our brains are hard-wired with a negativity bias, which is pretty damn annoying, since it means that we’re all predisposed to think this way. Humans are hard-wired to focus on negative information more than positive information. The area of the brain largely responsible for the negativity bias with the amygdala. This is a tiny almond-shaped region in our brain that uses about two-thirds of its neurons to seek out negative information
So, why are we built with more sensitivity to negative news than positive news?
From an evolutionary perspective, our negativity bias comes from the ancient part of our brain called the amygdala which is found in our “primitive” emotional brain. This part of the brain is hard-wired to exhibit negative, obsessional thinking and is responsible for our fight or flight survival-based response. The amygdala fires when we feel threatened. In modern times this is more psychological than physical (threats to self-esteem, ego, self-control).
Imagine you’re in ancient times and you hear a sabre tooth tiger. What do you feel? What do you do?
Your body engages in an incredible stress response. The amygdala fires, releasing stress hormones (primarily adrenaline). It’s a good response to danger because it mobilises us for activity – fight, flight, fright. Increased heart rate, blood pressure, breathing – all are adaptive mechanisms for survival.
Let’s have a look at the Croods – a pretty normal family who lived back in the times of that sabre tooth tiger we talked about before….
So, which one of these characters do you think survived the ordeal? The guy running for his life or the guy dreaming about the cave girl next door? The concern of ancient people was not on the pleasures of life, falling in love, etc. They needed to survive and pay attention to threats. The humans that survived in ancient times were the ones who could best focus on danger/threats and avoid them.
Later in evolution, however, we developed the neocortex and prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is the logical, rational, problem-solving part of our brains. The prefrontal cortex is directly connected with the emotional brain. This means we can train our prefrontal cortex to exert control over the amygdala during stressful times, in order to remain calm and rational. This helps prevent us from being overwhelmed by stressors, and to be better problem-solvers, and to enhance resiliency.
Research suggests that this negativity bias starts to emerge in infancy. Very young infants tend to pay greater attention to positive facial expression and tone of voice, but this begins to shift as they near one year of age. Brain studies indicate that around this time, babies begin to experience greater brain responses to negative stimuli. This suggests that the brain’s negative bias emerges during the latter half of a child’s first year of life. There is some evidence that the bias may actually start even earlier in development. One study found that infants as young as three-months-old show signs of the negativity bias when making social evaluations of others.
While we may no longer need to be on constant high alert as our early ancestors needed to be in order to survive, the negativity bias still has a starring role in how our brains operate. Research has shown that negative bias can have a wide variety of effects on how people think, respond, and feel. Some of the everyday areas where you might feel the results of this bias include in your relationships, decision-making, and the way you perceive people.
When forming impressions of others, people also tend to focus more on negative information. For example, studies have shown that when given both “good” and “bad” adjectives to describe another person’s character, participants give greater weight to the bad descriptors when forming a first impression.
How to overcome our Negative Bias
The negativity bias can take a toll on your mental health. Fortunately, there are simple techniques you can use to change your thinking and fight the tendency toward negative thinking.
Some of the things that you can do include:
- Practicing mindfulness – one way to become immersed in the present moment is to engage in a task that is challenging but attainable, a task that makes you focus and use resources, but is not so difficult that you become stressed (using SMART goals helps with this as well)
- Setting goals – using the SMART goal framework can help you to recognise when you have achieved your goals – this links to mindfulness (above). When tasks are set this way, they focus your attention and energise, rather than stressing you.
- Demonstrating gratitude – at the end of each day, use a handwritten journal to document 3 things you are grateful for is a fantastic way to retrain your brain
- Getting into the green – getting outside into a green space at least 25 minutes has proven to reduce frustration and increase engagement.
So, take control of your brain, retrain it to manage your negativity bias – it’s more important than ever in our crowded personal and professional lives!
If you’d like to learn more techniques to retrain your brain and increase your resilience, contact [email protected] and get involved in our online, interactive workshops. You’ll first learn what your current resilience levels are, learn in depth and practical techniques to increase your resilience and finally build your own resiliency road map and action plan.