Negativity Bias and Anxiety
Imagine a situation where we are given one positive piece of information about a person and another that is negative. Which do you suppose we give more weight to? Here’s an example. Your boss praises you for a piece of work you’ve just undertaken and then looks at you in a way that appears critical. Well all the evidence suggests the thing that will prey on your mind is the look. Why? Well it seems part of the human condition that we’re wired to pay more attention and give more weight to negative rather than positive emotions.
We take a criticism (implied or otherwise) much more seriously than we take a compliment. Again, why? We have to go right back to our ancient ancestors for the answer. From an evolutionary perspective our modern day lives and lifestyles are really quite recent. You’ve probably heard the comment that we inhabit our space age in the bodies of cavemen, and that’s pretty much the case. While technology has surged ahead our physiology treads water. So we’re in a situation where we’re still tuned to the strong possibility of threat as a survival instinct. Electrical activity in our brain is stronger to events perceived as negative.
The way we live today such sensitivities largely serve to get in the way of wellbeing. A positive and a negative experience is not equal and don’t seem to cancel each other out. In fact it has been calculated that one negative requires around three or more positives to counteract it. Some relationship experts suggest a ratio of five positives to one negative is necessary for the relationship to survive.
Sad as it may seem we remain more attuned and more affected by bad news, disasters, unhappy faces, goodbyes and losses over gains. A good day lasts a day, a bad day lasts as long as it takes. Estimates suggest that up to two-thirds of our language and even most of our dreams are front-loaded with negativity, worry and anxiety. It has been suggested that our negativity bias leads to more hawkish views for quick-fix revenge over more durable solutions that require finding compromise and concessions.
Does it help to know this? I think so. Without some awareness into our human frailties we expose ourselves to situations that lead to greater anxiety, stress and possibly danger. In any act of communication, whether in a relationship or across political divides, negativity bias inevitably plays a part in our views and our decision-making. It’s a big part of us and we somehow have to be bigger in order for harmony to dominate.