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Recognizing our ‘negativity bias’

Holy Everything — Emily Carson column sig

Political drama. Accidents of any kind. Bad weather. Colleague combativeness. Gossip. Mean words. Uncomfortable encounters. Disappointments from long ago. Why do these parts of life tend to consume so much of our attention? Why do we spend so much time thinking about them?

We are inclined to pay more attention to things that go wrong than go right, and this tendency is called negativity bias. Bad news: it’s evolutionarily hard-wired into us. Good news: becoming aware of this unconscious bias is an important first step in learning to refocus our attention.

Before we go any further, ponder with me for a moment. Where has your negativity bias shown up lately? Mine tends to appear this time of year whenever there is an impending winter storm. I become a fixated winter weather zombie in the days leading up to bad weather. I fester about plans that may need to be changed. I worry about possible driving conditions. I watch the radar online obsessively as the storm draws near. Rather than just accepting that winter is a season that involves snow, I’m drawn to the negative and disruptive aspects of the season. Impending winter storms are very sticky inside my brain.

Maybe your negativity bias has shown up at work, and you can’t seem to get a particularly difficult conversation with a co-worker out of your head. Or maybe you’ve gotten into the habit of watching the same television news program every day even though the host always focuses on stories that are sure to get viewers angry and emboldened.

It is as if everything in life with even a drop of negativity within it is covered in double-sided sticky tape. If you get anywhere near it, it will attach right to you. Once we’re stuck, it’s hard to detach. Negativity, tragedy, upset and dissatisfaction are all very sticky for our brains.


Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, author and senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley, believes there are evolutionary reasons for the development of negativity bias. Long ago, the ancestors of our species used the majority of their energy avoiding danger, and it helped them survive. They spent far more time averting threats and weren’t as interested in pursuing rewards. Even though we no longer face the same kinds of physical dangers as our ancestors many millennia ago, we’re still psychologically compelled to ruminate on anything that appears as a potential threat.

So what’s the solution? The answer is not to become a society of Pollyannas. Instead, the first step is to practice awareness of negativity bias. Begin to notice it in yourself and those around you. Notice how it influences the patterns of your workplace and congregation. Evaluate ways negativity bias may show up in your preferred print and digital news outlets and social media feeds. Once we begin to recognize this bias, it becomes easier to identify.

We’re more drawn to the negative than both the neutral and the positive. We don’t need to feel ashamed about this; it doesn’t mean that we’re Negative Nellies. Instead, it means we’re part of a lengthy lineage of homo sapiens learning to correctly separate actual threats from imagined threats.

We don’t need to be perky or positive all the time; that would be inauthentic and unnecessary. But we can choose to, when appropriate, practice sustained attention on things other than that which provokes fear, anger and disappointment. The neutral and positive parts of life deserve our thoughtfulness, too.

It’s like Paul wrote to the Philippians in Chapter 4, Verse 8: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things."


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