Redirecting Our Negativity Bias


What is a negativity bias? Why are humans prone to it?

Well, the term was first documented by psychologists Roy F. Baumister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer in an article titled “Bad is Stronger than Good”.

And, it describes the human tendency to be much more likely to be influenced by and to recall negative experiences, instead of neutral or positive experiences. It is a behavior that our ancestors developed in order to quickly identify and react to threats. It was a very useful instinct and, fight or flight’ reflex.

But, even though a negativity bias was useful to our ancestors, who needed caution and skepticism for daily survival, can we say it’s overwhelming presence is serving us well in today’s world?

I would argue that, as a default mind-set, it rarely serves to benefit us now. Afterall, human civilization has changed a lot and it continues to change very rapidly. So, why do we continue to fall victim to a bias that served us so many years ago? Why are we stuck in this old way of thinking?

Firstly, in today's world, there are a lot of sources which significantly influence our thoughts, like the mainstream media, which thrive on our instinctual habit to focus on negativity. It’s a matter of business for the Media, because we process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data, and it affects us longer. Negative news simply gets more attention than positive news.

In addition to this environmental influence, many of us “grow up in a world that doesn’t value the training of attention or the capacity to cultivate specific emotions.”  We all have the ability to decide what will earn our attention, and we can deliberately control and cultivate our minds to decipher our world without bias. But, this deliberate action requires practice. It is very easy to fall back into old habits.

As agents within a collective human system, we adapt and interact in response to our environment, and our environment will continue to reinforce our negativity bias, if we let it. Consequently, it is easy to feel stuck in a feedback loop of negativity.

So, we have a choice to make: give in to bias and stay in the loop, or, learn how to purposefully direct your attention to where it will serve you best. 

What is liberating news for all of us is that we have the choice! If you decide that negativity isn't serving you, then you can redirect your focus. We can seek out and destroy our unconscious biases.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein

Humans are a complex adaptive system. We can change! We can regain control of our minds and our everyday interactions, in order to create new patterns of behavior. What’s even more exciting is that as we change and evolve so will our environment, because we are so interconnected within networks and have such a profound affect on each other. There is so much power in our collective consciousness.  

We have the power to cultivate social optimism. As our individual thoughts, choices and behaviors shift away from the default of negativity, change ripples through the system.

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. In this week's episode Haley and Angie interview sociologist and fellow podcaster, Josh Morgan, to discuss social resilience. -- Let's work happy!

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