Let’s pretend you are a person from the Stone Age. You are in your cave, getting ready for a hunt, but something outside the cave seems dangerous. You hear violent sounds that you don’t understand. You have two options: give up on the hunt, spend the night hungry but live another day, or risk your life and go outside. Keep this thought, as we will come back to it.
Now, imagine you are driving to work. When you exit the highway, someone cuts you off suddenly. You hit the brakes. You know the feeling that follows: a tense fury builds up, and your fingers grip the steering wheel tighter. This event is enough to make you feel stressed all day, be less productive at work, and be distracted during meetings. To balance the feeling, you might seek a quick release of endorphins in unhealthy foods, aimless internet browsing, or similar activities. However, all of these exacerbate the problem. It’s like investing short-term negativity in a high-yield, long-term unhappiness investment plan.
So, why does a simple traffic incident have such an impact on you? Why can a negative experience ruin a day that could have otherwise been wonderful?
The answer lies in our brain’s tendency to react more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones, to keep us safe. This principle is known as the “negativity bias.”
What is the negativity bias?
It’s not entirely the fault of the Stone Age human. The neurological roots of the negativity bias started long before that. In his book on the subject, “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” Dr. Rick Hanson argues that our ancestors lived in a world of rewards (food, intimacy, shelter) and punishments (predators, diseases, injuries) – the concept known today as “carrots and sticks.”
Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, and Catrin Finkenauer found that negative experiences are almost always stronger than positive ones, and how we take in this information shapes how we see ourselves.
“Negative emotions, negative parents, and negative feedback have more impact than positive ones… The self is more motivated to avoid negative definitions of the self than to pursue positive ones.”
How does the negativity bias affect our productivity?
This negativity bias has a significant impact on our workplace productivity. Negative stimuli trigger more neural activity, and negativity is detected more quickly and easily by our brains. The amygdala – the brain region that regulates emotions and motivation – uses about two-thirds of neurons to detect bad news, Dr. Hanson suggests.
Think about it: two-thirds of our motivation apparatus is designed to focus on negativity. Additionally, people are more likely to make financial and career decisions based on avoiding something bad rather than achieving something good.
How to overcome the negativity bias
Fortunately, there are strategies and techniques we can use to confront and overcome this bias. Here are some ways to beat the negativity bias:
1. Reframe the language behind goals
Even Pixar Studios felt the impact of the negativity bias. Company leaders noticed that employees were avoiding expressing their honest opinions in meetings, according to Pixar’s founder, Ed Catmull. This led to the introduction of a new concept: candor. Pixar encourages candor through the Braintrust, a group of creative leaders who oversee the development of films. This practice freed Pixar teams from the burden of honesty and promoted creativity while preventing the dominance of the negativity bias.
2. Use meditation techniques to calm yourself
In his book “Hardwiring Happiness,” Dr. Rick Hanson provides a step-by-step guide to reduce anxiety and the negativity bias through mindfulness meditation practice. In a simple meditation, Hanson suggests starting by sitting in a quiet place and closing your eyes, then relaxing and focusing on your breath.
3. Seek a friend’s perspective
Daniel Goleman suggests a simple technique called the “mirror-viewing” in his book entitled “Focus.” This involves discussing situations that negatively affect you with a trusted friend to view the problem from a different perspective.
4. Examine and reevaluate negative thoughts
When we have negative thoughts, it’s often helpful to examine and reevaluate them. This can help gain a more realistic perspective and avoid falling into excessive negativity. Begin by acknowledging the negative thoughts. Then try to answer the following questions:
Is this thinking based on facts or assumptions? Is there evidence that supports or contradicts this thinking? How could I view this situation from a more objective perspective? What other interpretation of the situation could there be? How could I respond in a more constructive or rational way to this situation? These questions can help you explore your negative thoughts more comprehensively and find ways to counter them with more balanced and realistic arguments.
5. Practice gratitude and appreciation
A powerful way to counter the negativity bias is to practice gratitude and appreciation for the good things in your life. Take time to reflect on the things you are grateful for every day. You can keep a gratitude journal where you daily write down three things you are grateful for. These can be small or large things, from moments of joy to personal achievements or positive events in your life. By practicing gratitude, you can recalibrate your attention to the positive aspects of your life and create a healthier balance between your reactions to positive and negative events.
The negativity bias is strong, and overcoming it will take some time. However, the effort is well worth it. Practice these things consistently, and you will notice that your negativity bias decreases, and your productivity and happiness increase significantly!