Ever wonder why nastiness, thrillers, bad news, potential bad news, and negative comments stick more than the good stuff?
The Negative Bias
The “Negative Bias” is a function in our human brain that evokes greater sensitivity towards unpleasant news. As the name suggests, it results in our being naturally biased towards the negative.
This means we detect threats, potential problems and things that are ‘off’ far quicker than we register the pleasant or neutral events. Our amygdala (the region of our brain responsible for survival instincts) uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect problematic events and store them into long-term memory*.
i.e., Two thirds of functional brain processes are designed to focus on problems.
Origins in Survival
As much as negativity causes us pain and unpleasantness, the truth is without it, we would have gone extinct.
Back when our ancestors were cavemen, being vigilant and looking for potential threats was a matter of life and death. It helped us survive as a species.
As a rule of Mother Nature, when a function heightens one’s chances of survival, it is naturally passed down to the next generation. Our Negative Bias ensured we were vigilant enough to fight, flee, and avoid when we needed to keep safe, which is why we continue to have it.
Over time (thousands of years), this sensitivity stayed but our lifestyles changed. And so it began to spill into our work, relationships, goals, politics, media.
Sometimes, we try too hard to be positive and sometimes we fall into the trap of feeling too low. Neither are helpful. Too much negativity leads to loss of hope, joy, perspective. Too much positivity leads to loss of sensitivity, empathy, sympathy. Just as a battery needs both negative and positive to flow, so too do we.
A fine balance allows us to be joyful, modulate our perspective, sympathise, and be sensitive to one another. An awareness of our negative patterns and its origins in survival allows us to track and understand the natural way of things. Most importantly, it helps us un-judge ourselves. Instead of working hard to be one or the other, we could instead endeavour to be real, observe our patterns, and find our balance.
2 Ways to Break the Cycle: Gratitude & Growth
1. Gratitude Practice
This is potentially the most powerful practice move out of unhelpful patterns. Make a list of 3-5 things you find nice, helpful, or worthy each day. You may find this list growing over time as you include little silly things too :). I have all sorts of things on my gratitude list – something yummy, something someone said, something I did that I may have been procrastinating.
Gratitude lists are an especially useful practice before bedtime – so we acknowledge our gains and efforts, and do not carry unfinished matters into sleep.
It is also an uplifting practice for the darker rainy days. Revisiting our list brings perspective and relief when we feel lost or trapped.
On a neurological level, this practice changes our neural pathways. Old unhelpful patterns loosen up, useful patterns strengthen, and we find the mind expanding. When the mind expands, we find ourselves more creative, playful, adventurous, brave, bold, courageous, compassionate.
A subtle caution: gratitude practice isn’t about what we ‘should‘ be grateful for (a subtle form of self-aggression), but about what we do notice as valuable.
2. Growth Mindset
Sometimes, we may not be able to feel grateful. In such situations, we do not force this but instead, reflect on possibilities for growth. We observe if we have learned something from it, or if it has taught us something about ourselves or about life in general.
For example, repeated patterns in relationships may tell us something about our need to speak up or work on reactive outbursts. Or, a difficult situation may show us strength we may not have known we had. Or the pain of a broken relationship may tell us something about cultivating self-love and self-care.
Looking for growth sometimes means taking a birds eye view of the situation, viewing it from a distance, perhaps as an older version of ourselves or as another person.
Negativity and positivity both have its place.
They are often helpful.
They are often unhelpful too.
It’s up to us to balance them using our faculty of non-judgement: Awareness
Negativity helped us survive as a species.
Gratitude & Growth Mindset helps us thrive as human beings.