Negativity Bias: Why Negative Things Stand Out

Positive thinking can feel like a job to do, while negative thinking seems to happen more automatically. In fact, this is true at a very fundamental level of the brain, studies show. It is called the negativity bias

Researchers have documented the negativity bias in various experiments over the years, and it seems to affect all aspects of human life, most fundamentally attention and memory. The negativity bias has been found even in infants (Vaish et al., 2008).

Why would we have a negativity bias?

Evolutionarily speaking, negative information is more important to us than positive information as it is more essential to our survival as a species. For example, to worry is to prepare oneself for a potentially dangerous or unpleasant situation.

From this perspective, worrying is helpful, even though excessive worrying decreases well-being, because survival is more important than feeling good. In other words, “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.” (Richard Boyatzis).

Rozin & Royzman (2001) state that negative information require greater information processing resources than positive information. For this reason, people spend more time thinking about or processing negative events than positive events.

In the article “Bad Is Stronger Than Good” (2001), Baumeister and colleagues say that bad is stronger than good in all events of life. In close relationships, social life and learning processes (e.g., negative feedback dominates positive feedback).

Moreover, positive emotions are less intense, they catch our attention less (Baumeister et al., ), and they tend to be more diffuse (Ellsworth & Smith, 1988). Because of this, negative or painful events are more easily stored in our long-term memory, and they are easier to retrieve as well.

Finally, psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson has shown that we need three positive emotional experiences to outweigh just one negative emotion in order to thrive, which is coined the positivity calculus theory.

These research findings may explain why we sometimes find ourselves trapped by negative thoughts and emotions. In regard to this topic, I recommend the TEDTalk “Hardwiring happiness” from 2013 by Dr. Rick Hanson.

Let me finish this post with the old Russian proverb, “A spoonful of tar can spoil a barrel of honey, but a spoonful of honey does nothing for a barrel of tar.

Thank you for reading.

Image: Rodger Evans