How to Stop Letting Negativity Bias Hold You Back

What it is and How to Counter It.

“If we magnified blessings as much as we magnify disappointments, we would all be much happier,” John Wooden wrote, reflecting on one of life’s crucial lessons. And while this may seem obvious, we still can’t seem to do it. Each day, we continue to focus on disappointments at the expense of the positive.

If you receive a glowing performance review, yet it comes with some minor criticism, which will you spend the next day thinking about — the praise or the criticism?

If tomorrow you have ten good things happen, with one negative event, would it be a good day? I’d say yes. I’ll take that ratio. But come tomorrow evening, I’d likely be complaining about that one bad event, without even considering all of the positive things that happened.

While there are plenty of legitimate negative things to worry about in today’s world, there’s also no shortage of positive news to balance it out. Yet the negative grabs and holds our attention much more than the positive — a fact emphasized by the media’s long-standing slogan — if it bleeds, it leads.

Most of us carry this asymmetry or negativity bias. It’s what pushes us to ruminate on one bad impression, fixate on past accidents that everyone else has likely forgotten, and keep tuning in to watch the political dumpster fires.

It’s not that we’re all a bunch of miserable cranks, looking for something to complain about. Although some are — like my neighbor who gets into shouting matches with barking dogs. But most people aren’t consciously looking for reasons to be upset each day. It’s just that we’re programmed to behave this way.

A spoonful of tar can spoil a barrel of honey, but a spoonful of honey does nothing for a barrel of tar.” — Russian proverb

If I showed you a picture of a dinner plate, someone riding a roller coaster, and a mutilated face, which would invoke a stronger reaction? What about a picture of a guy pointing a gun at the camera?

As ridiculous as this sounds, this was the basis of a widely cited study on negativity bias. A group of researchers showed these photos to participants and were then somehow surprised when people responded strongly to looking down the barrel of a gun. Thank you Science.

While it’s debatable whether these types of studies are the best use of research funding, it’s not surprising that our brains respond more strongly to negative stimuli. From an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors had to deal with environmental threats on a daily basis. Their survival depended on an ability to pay attention to negative situations. As the old saying goes, “Life has to win every day. Death only has to win once.”

Your brain is doing its best to keep you safe. And it’s learned that the best way to do that is by paying careful attention to negative events.

It’s just that very few of today’s negative stimuli are survival-threatening. Yeah, it sucks if your presentation falls flat, but it’s not synonymous with eating those poisonous berries.

For most of us, we’re not just looking to survive, but thrive. Overly focusing on the negative may help you stay alive. But if you overemphasize the negative, it limits the choices you’ll make and the risks you’ll be willing to take. All of which limits how much you can take advantage of what life has to offer.

“If we could be freed from our aversion to loss, our whole outlook on risk would change.” — Alan Hirsch

The great economist Paul Samuelson once asked a friend whether he would accept a coin-toss gamble in which he would lose $100 or win $200. His friend replied, “I won’t bet because I would feel the $100 loss more than the $200 gain. But I’ll take you on if you promise to let me make 100 such bets.”

It’s clear that when you apply the law of big numbers, Paul’s friend is much more likely to come out ahead. While negativity bias pushed him to avoid a single bet and the chance of a loss, taking a broader view helped him see the value in that offer.

Yet his logic in turning down the initial gamble reflects a poor posture on risk and opportunity. While few people are going to offer a 2:1 payout 100 times, life is full of such risks. If you can stop seeing these risks independently and view them as a large group, that same law of big numbers helps you come ahead in the end.

Assuming these risks aren’t jeopardizing your survival, the ability to chase new opportunities is a key part of fully living your life. We have more opportunity to take great risks for the very reason that we have so few true risks to our survival any longer. For the majority of risks, you’ll live to see another day. Maybe you lost today. But tomorrow brings another opportunity.

By framing risks broadly — looking at them in the context of a larger set of opportunities — it’s easy to keep this perspective. By refusing to see these choices as singular issues, and considering them as part of a larger group, it’s easier to recognize that pushing ourselves and taking risk will return a long-term positive balance — even if today’s results are in the red.

The same mindset applies when ruminating on negative events. If you can apply a broad frame to the issue, it’s easy to see that while something may be a disaster when viewed on its own, it’s much less dramatic when you view it with the cumulative events of the past month.

“Some people feel the rain; others just get wet.” — Roger Miller

When a negative event occurs, most peoples’ first impulse will be to minimize the risk — negativity bias at work. And in times of a pandemic or a major crisis, this is the right move. Don’t give death an in, it only needs to win once, remember?

But for all of those non-life-threatening negative events, you can train yourself to look for the opportunity that this change presents. See things through a broad frame. And all it takes is one word: Good.

Jocko Willink responds to any difficulty by saying that very thing: Good. By responding with “Good,” he’s able to frame every issue as a potential opportunity. By considering today’s development in a larger context — broad framing — it’s easier to see how one negative event can span future positive actions.

Didn’t get a strong performance review? Good. Focus on getting better for the next one.

Job didn’t go well? Good. Learn from it and come back stronger tomorrow.

Didn’t get the resources you wanted? Good. Now you can demonstrate your resourcefulness and ability to overcome constraints.

Screwed up that presentation? Good. Recognize that weakness and start working to improve.

Despise the state of our current political situation? Good. Now you have some motivation to get involved.

Medium curators hate this article and refuse to distribute it? Good. I’ll make the next one better.

And echoing Kyle Maynard’s motivation of “Not Dead, Can’t Quit,” Jocko offers the critical importance of responding with Good:

“Finally: if you can say the word “good,” then guess what? It means you’re still alive. It means you’re still breathing. And if you’re still breathing, that means you’ve still got some fight left in you. So get up, dust off, reload, recalibrate, re-engage — and go out on the attack.”

So say Good. Broaden your framing. And try to focus on your blessings as much as your disappointments.

Enemy of the Status Quo.

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