Our brains are complicated and highly effective. But you’ve probably noticed that they also seem to work against us sometimes. Our thoughts and perceptions can end up making us feel anxious, ill-equipped or overwhelmed.
Our brain's built-in survival feature called the Negativity Bias can hijack our emotions and sabotage our interactions with others. Once you understand how your brain is wired, you can more easily reduce anxiety and other intense emotions.
How the Negativity Bias works
The brain’s #1 job is survival. Its whole goal is to keep us safe & alive. Everything the brain does is in service of protecting us from harm and getting our needs met for survival.
Great, right?!?! Except this means that our brain is constantly scanning the environment for potential danger so that we can avoid harm and stay alive. This feature helped our ancestors to quickly detect and respond to potential threats in their environment, and it’s part of why we are still here as a species.
But what this also means is that our brains have a bias towards assuming something is a threat. Every fallen stick on the path is a potential snake on the ground, bursting with venom and ready to strike, until proven otherwise.
So that means that the brain is always on high alert and anticipating danger?
What it also means is that the brain tends to gloss over neutral or positive things. In less than a second, the brain can identify things that are not a threat and it basically ignores them.
Think about all the things in your living space that you don’t even notice are there most of the time. Your brain has already assessed them and categorized them as non-threatening. It’s focused instead on the new strange creaking sound, the errant smell, or the weird vibe you are sensing from your partner.
Recap: the Negativity Bias in the brain does 2 things:
1. Assumes everything is dangerous until proven otherwise
2. Discards and barely registers things that are neutral/positive
1. The information our brains hold onto is heavily biased towards the negative. 2. Our perceptions of situations, people, and ourselves end up being skewed and not based on all of the facts.
The Negativity Bias in Action
Example 1. When you approach a crosswalk or a stop sign, your brain alerts you to look both ways before proceeding. This is the negativity bias in a helpful moment. The brain says “assume danger, look for threat.” You are kept safe.
Example 2. On the other hand, if you are headed into the grocery store and your brain tells you “assume danger, look for threat” even though nothing life threatening has ever happened to you at a grocery store, it can significantly increase your (unwarranted) fear. This is the negativity bias in overdrive.
The negativity bias can then also…
trigger physical symptoms of fear like making your heart beat faster
make you forget about what you are there to buy
increase nervousness about being physically close to other people
create embarrassment about asking staff for assistance
and maybe even prompt you to leave or avoid entering the store
Can you think of recent ways your brain’s negativity bias was helpful for you?
Can you think of recent ways your brain’s negativity bias was in overdrive?
High anxiety + Negativity Bias
For folks who live with high anxiety, the negativity bias is often in overdrive.
New things mean danger.
People are judging and thinking the worst of us.
Change will bring awful outcomes.
Trusting people is risky.
Daily living feels like way more experiences that are bad/risky than good/safe.
The “negative” traits we see in ourselves are the are the only (or the main) traits we can see.
The Negativity Bias in Relationships
In the intro, I mentioned that the negativity bias can impact our interactions with others. Because of our natural tendency to pay more attention to negative information than positive information, when we experience something negative with someone (like criticism or disappointment), we tend to focus on it more than on positive things (like compliments or successes).
How the negativity bias can show up in our interactions:
1. Focusing on negative actions/qualities.
Tendency to dwell on small annoyances or perceived slights in a relationship, while overlooking or taking for granted positive qualities or actions.
Roommate A: "You're always leaving your dirty dishes in the sink! Don't you ever think about cleaning up after yourself?"
Roommate B: "I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was bothering you that much. I'll try to be more mindful of it."
Roommate A: "It's just frustrating because you never seem realize that we both have to live here and that I’m not your maid."
In this example, the negativity bias in Roommate A is continuing to focus on the negative behavior of roommate B leaving dirty dishes in the sink, possibly to help brace against future disappointment. But it also prevents Roommate A from absorbing the apology from Roommate B as well as their willingness to change.
2. Holding grudges about something that already happened.
Negative experiences feel more salient and impactful than positive ones, making it difficult to let go of grudges or forgive past transgressions. This can lead to feelings of resentment and distance in a relationship, and make it harder to move past conflicts.
Partner A: "I can't believe you forgot our anniversary. You never pay attention to anything that matters to me."
Partner B: "I'm sorry, I completely forgot. Can I make it up to you by planning a date for this weekend?"
Partner A: "It's too late now. You always take me for granted and I'm sick of it."
Here, the negativity bias in Partner A is fixating on the mistake, possibly as a way to protect from future hurts. But unfortunately, it fuels negative feelings about the relationship (and the partner), and the option for repairing the wound is lost.
3. Assuming a catastrophe based on limited information.
The brain can easily catastrophize or jump to worst-case scenarios without considering alternatives. If your partner is late coming home from work, you might immediately assume the worst and worry that they've been in an accident or are cheating on you, when in reality there's a more mundane explanation.
Friend A: "Why did you take so long to text me back? I was sure I had said something wrong and that you were pissed at me. I felt sick about it all day.”
Friend B: "I'm sorry, my phone was in my bag and I just didn't hear it. We’re totally fine, everything's okay!"
Friend A: "It's just that every time you don't respond right away, you make me worry that you're pulling away or want to stop being friends.”
In this example, the negativity bias in Partner A jumps to assuming the worst possible outcome (that something is wrong in the relationship) based on very limited information.
How to unhook from the Negativity Bias
The more you are able to start noticing your negativity bias in action, the more easily you can start to shift away from it to help reduce your anxiety and intense emotions. What can help with this?
1. Increase your ability to be mindful.
Mindfulness is simply the ability to have more accurate awareness of yourself, your thoughts & emotions, and the things happening around you. Often it means slowing yourself down and zooming out to see the whole picture.
If you’re more aware of your thoughts and feelings in the moment, you can recognize that the negativity bias is kicking in. Then you can pause and ask yourself:
Am I interpreting this situation in an overly negative way? What else could be true here?
Am I assuming the worst-case scenario is going to happen? What are other possible outcomes?
Am I jumping to conclusions or making assumptions about the situation or the people involved? What other different facts do I know about the situation/person?
Am I discounting or ignoring any positive aspects of this situation/person?
Mindfulness does take some effort and practice to be able to use it in tough moments. Read more about how to grow your mindfulness skills.
2. Increase your focus on what is okay/fine/neutral/positive.
You can balance out the negativity bias by intentionally focusing on the situations or interactions that go smoothly and pausing to highlight those rather than letting the brain gloss over them.
A regular “gratitude practice” of reflecting on things you appreciate about your day or your life can also help train your brain to pay more attention to the whole reality, not just the potential threats.
3. Increase your self-care.
Make time for the routines and activities that help you relax and bring you comfort. If your physical body is less on edge, it will be easier to interpret situations more accurately. Read here for some new self-care ideas and also here for some strategies to trigger the release of helpful brain chemicals.
When you take good care of your physical and emotional self, you are better equipped to handle stressful moments that trigger the negativity bias. If you are overall in a less heightened state, it will be easier to be mindful and approach situations differently.
4. Get professional help.
If you're struggling to manage the negativity bias the way you would prefer, a therapist can provide additional support and guidance to help you implement specific strategies.
Your takeaways about the Negativity Bias:
Negative perceptions and a fearful outlook are normal survival functions of the brain.
The brain is designed to gloss right over neutral or positive things, distorting our perception of reality.
Knowing how the negativity bias works can empower us to push back against it when it’s unhelpful.
If the negativity bias feels out of control, very intense, is causing unwanted consequences, or is happening all the time, it's no longer helpful and needs to be calibrated.
We can cultivate strategies to calibrate the negativity bias and feel more in control.
What would you like to start doing differently based on what you know about the Negativity Bias now?
Image credits: Gerd Altmann (photo), Stephanie Ghesquier (illustration)
If you experience intense emotions and want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.