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The Negativity Bias


Ever wondered why sometimes the only things you can remember from a trip are the negative things? Here’s why!

Our brains have something called a “negativity bias” that makes us remember bad news more than good. To feel balanced, studies have shown that we need at least a five to one ratio of good things to bad things in our lives.

Our tendency for paying attention to the negative rather than the positive information is an evolutionary hand-me-down from our cave dwelling ancestors. This is because back then our alertness to danger was a matter of life and death.

We inherited the genes that predispose us to give special attention to those negative aspects of our environments that could be harmful to us,” explains psychologist Timothy J Bono. In this way, focusing on the bad things is similar to feeling pain - our bodies do this to keep us safe.

Negative emotions rouse a part of the brain that psychologist Rick Hansen calls “the alarm bell of the brain”. According to Dr Hansen, this part of the brain uses two thirds of its neurons to look for bad news. Once it sounds the “alarm”, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory. This contrasts to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a slightly longer time to transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory.

What is the negativity bias?

The “negativity bias” explains why negative events and experiences imprint more quickly and linger longer than positive ones. This is also known as positive-negative asymmetry.

In other words, we are more likely to register an insult or negative event than we are to take in a compliment or recall details of a happy event.

This can even cause you to focus on something negative even if something positive is equally or more present. For example, you may spend the entire day having a great time with your friend, but if one comment is made that bothers you slightly, you may end up remembering the day from the comment, therefore categorising the day as negative when the day was positive overall.

Another example would be studies designed by Danny Kahneman in which participants are asked to either imagine losing or gaining $50. Even though the amount is the same, the magnitude of emotional response is significantly larger for those imagining what it would be like to lose the money. This shows that the negativity of losing something is far greater than the satisfaction of gaining something, even when the something gained or lost is equal.


- Relationships

The negativity bias can have a profound impact on one’s relationships. The bias can lead people to expect the worst in each other, and becomes particularly prominent when two people have known each other for a long time.

An example would be that one might negatively anticipate how their partner would react to something and go into the interaction with their defenses on high alert. This can lead to arguments and resentment.

When it comes to relationships, it is important to remember that negative comments usually carry much more weight than positive ones. It is also important to be aware of our tendency to fixate on the bad things. This way, one can focus on finding ways to cut other people a break and stop expecting the worst of the other person.

- Decision making

The negativity bias can have an influence on the decision making process.

Nobel Prize winning researchers Kahneman and Tversky found that when making decisions, people consistently place greater weight on negative aspects of an event than they do on positive ones.

This tendency to overemphasize the negative can have an impact on the choices that people make and the risks that they are willing to take.

- People perception

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

- Stop negative self talk

Start paying attention to the type of thoughts that run through your head. After something happens, you might find yourself thinking things like “I should not have done that”. This negative self-talk shapes how you think about yourself and others.

- Reframe the situation

How you talk to yourself about events, experiences, and people plays a large role in shaping how you interpret events. When you think about something in a negative way, or only focusing on the bad aspects of a situation, look for ways to reframe the situation in a better light.

- Establish new patterns

If you find yourself focusing on the negative things, look for a positive activity to pull yourself out of the negative mindset. This could be going for a walk, reading a book, listening to music, and so much more!

- Savour positive moments

It takes more for positive experiences to be remembered, so it is important to give extra attention to good things that happen.

When something great happens, take a moment to really focus on it. Replay the moment several times in your memory and focus on the wonderful feelings the memory evokes


Researcher: Christiane Au, Editor: Hailey Wong, Thumbnail: Bernice Lam, Text Transcription: Megan Kwok


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