Personal Finance

Tackling negative bias in everyday life

stress

Summary

  • Negative bias is the notion that positive events generally have less of an impact on a person’s behaviour or emotional response than something negative of equal significance does.
  • Several studies have suggested that negativity is essentially an attention magnet and that is why bad news sells more.
  • The tendency to lean towards negativity makes us unpleasant, suspicious, resentful unhappy and unoptimistic, which in turn reduces the quality of our lives.

It does not take much for bad news to draw attention. Just tune in to the TV news bulletin today and note out of the top five news items, how many among them convey bad news?

Negative events tend to have more impact on our brains than positive ones. Psychologists refer to this as negative bias.

Negative bias is the human tendency to give more importance to negative experiences than to positive or neutral experiences. For example, you make a presentation that goes smoothly, save for that part in the Question and Answer session when you fumbled a bit when trying to answer a complex question. When most of us face such a scenario, that moment will be our only memory from the presentation.

Negative bias is the notion that positive events generally have less of an impact on a person’s behaviour or emotional response than something negative of equal significance does.

Manifestation of negative bias in our daily lives

Psychologists have argued that negative stimuli carry greater informational value than positive stimuli hence require greater attention and cognitive processing. Negative bias affects our daily lives significantly as demonstrated below:

Decision making — people often weigh the negative consequences of an event more heavily than the positive consequences. For example, when faced with a decision of whether or not to leave an unfulfilling job, we are likely to only consider the negative consequences of being jobless rather than the possibility of finding a more fulfilling job and experiencing job satisfaction.

Impression formation — bad first impressions are generally harder to overcome compared to good first impressions. Consider the following scenario; you have checked into a luxury hotel for the evening, when you enter the bathroom, there is a huge spider in the sink, studies show that most people will think of the spider encounter as a more vivid memory compared to the luxury experience in the hotel. This may not, however, be the most accurate representation of the hotel.

Attention — several studies have suggested that negativity is essentially an attention magnet and that is why bad news sells more.

Memory — memory is a direct consequence of attentional processing which is largely impacted by negative bias.

People tend to recall more negative information than positive information. This explains why childhood trauma often tends to have a significant impact on a person’s adult life and lingers long after the person has been removed from the negative environment.

Is negative bias useful?

Negative bias has been thought to be a self-protective evolutionary response. Our ancestors lived in tough environments and constantly had to scan the environment for impending danger for their survival. Their lives were largely centred on avoiding danger. While this approach served a critical evolutionary adaptive function, it is slowly losing its relevance in the wake of technological advancements.

The tendency to lean towards negativity makes us unpleasant, suspicious, resentful unhappy and unoptimistic, which in turn reduces the quality of our lives. A study has shown that happy people live 14 percent longer than people who report that they are unhappy. Workplace happiness is linked with job performance, productivity and engagement.

Optimistic people set more goals, and more difficult goals, stay more engaged when things get difficult and transcend obstacles more easily. [Carvey, C.S & Scheier, M.F.,2005].

Neuroplasticity

It may seem that negative bias is a default setting deeply ingrained in our brains, passed down from generation to generation and embedded in our genes. Not so long ago even scientists believed that our brains did not change after childhood and that they were fixed by the time we reached adulthood.

This has since changed with the discovery of Neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganisation. Our brains just like our body muscles can change and adapt as a result of experience. While younger brains generally tend to be more sensitive and responsive to experiences compared to much older brains, adult brains are still capable of adaptation and change.

Through neuroplasticity, human beings can recover from brain injuries and diseases like stroke; enhance their memory capability; enhance learning and manage anxiety and depression.

Just as we train our muscles to be strong and keep our bodies fit through exercise, we can also engage our minds in a mental gym to develop happy and healthy habits and overcome negative biases.

Mindfulness and curing negative bias

A consistent mindfulness practice will go a long way in enabling us to cultivate a positive outlook in life. Jessica Lassity writes about mindfulness meditation and neuroplasticity as follows:-

“With meditation, your brain is effectively being rewired: as your feelings and thoughts morph toward a more pleasant outlook your brain is also transforming, making this way of thought more of a default…the more your brain changes from meditation, the more you react to everyday life with that sense of calm, compassion, and awareness.”

Practical mindful tips for countering the negative bias:-

Three goods things — establish a consistent practice of gratitude and appreciation. Challenge yourself to note down either mentally or on paper three good things that happen every day. No matter how bad your day went, there must have been something that you experienced that you appreciated. This can also be a great bonding experience with your loved ones at the end of the day.

Notice — take a few moments in the day to be more present and notice the things around you. Observe the world with curiosity like a child discovering new things. Avoid using the “thinking brain” and use the “feeling/seeing brain”. Smell the coffee (literally) feel the warmth of the cup in your palms, savour the taste in your mouth as it goes down your stomach. In the moments where we are fully present, the ordinary world becomes more interesting.

Reframing — this involves changing the way you look at and experience life events. A good reframing technique is asking yourself the following questions when faced with a difficult life event: What is good in this situation? If you are not able to point to any good, ask yourself, what could go worse. What is not perfect in this situation? What can I do to remedy the situation and have fun in the process?

Reframing can change our physical responses to stress’ negative encounters because our body’s stress responses are triggered by perceived stress more often than actual events.

Paula Ochango, Associate, Commercial Department, Dentons Hamilton Harrison and Mathews.