We’re all biased

Would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? You might be surprised to hear that we’re all hardwired to be pessimistic, or at least to remember negative and painful events more strongly than positive.  Mark and I talked about the implications of this on Radio Live this week.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

So what is this “negativity bias?”…

“The negativity bias (also known as the negativity effect) refers to the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.  In other words, something very positive will generally have less of an impact on a person’s behavior and cognition than something equally emotional but negative. The negativity bias has been investigated within many different domains, including the formation of impressions and general evaluations; attention, learning, and memory; and decision-making and risk considerations.”  (Click here for the whole article)

There have been a lot of ideas and theories about why our brains are hardwired this way, but the basic idea is that it serves a survival function.  People who tend to remember threatening or painful events more strongly are going to be better at avoiding threats.  This adaptation comes at the cost of remembering pleasant events as strongly, because, bottom line, pleasant events don’t kill you.

The problem is, like many survival adaptations, in our modern day world it can cause as many problems as it solves.  Given that most of our lives are not constantly under threat like they were when we as a species were roaming the savannah, this bias can skew our thinking and our emotions towards anxiety and misery.  It can also make some things harder than they need to be.

A striking example of this is some really interesting research carried out in the nineties by one of the leaders in the filed of couples therapy, John Gottman.  He figured out a formula that enabled him to tell with a 90% accuracy level whether couples would go on to divorce, by just spending 15 minutes observing them.  This prediction was based on the ratio of positive to negative expressions observed between the two partners.  If this ratio was less than five positive expressions for every one negative (5:1) then 90% of the time the relationship would end in divorce.  He also found that highly successful relationships the ratio was closer to 20:1!

This can all sound fairly negative, even hopeless.  However there are things that can enable us to begin to understand, and even counter this tendency to pay too much attention to the negative, and to brush over the positive.  Mindfulness for example actually enables us to literally re-programme our brain, and to develop the discipline to slow ourselves down and really pay attention to the positive experiences in our life.  This is important, because if we don’t notice it it may as well not have happened and our brain literally needs more time to fully absorb positive expereinces.

Rick Hanson a world leading neurospycholgist and expert in mindfulness says it much better than I ever can when he describes the mind as being “like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for the positive.”  This video of a presentation by Rick is well worth a watch to really learn how to hold onto and learn from positive experiences.  Take some time to let it sink in…


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