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So You Had A Bad Day… Or Did You?

I wish I hadn’t overslept. Now I’m late to class and I didn’t get to eat breakfast. That reading I meant to finish early this morning? It’s sitting in my backpack, untouched. My socks don’t match, I forgot my hat, and my dorm room is a mess from scrambling around this morning hurrying to get myself together. Today’s going to be the worst day. Or is it?

Some people have a natural tendency to notice the bad over the good. For example, in the situation above, these “bad” things may have happened, but why place so much weight on them? Why let them consume our thoughts, even dictate how the rest of our day will go? It is likely that a few good things happened throughout our day, too, but we sometimes tend not to notice the good as strongly as we notice the bad. Oftentimes, this negativity bias comes into play during our judgement and decision-making processes, causing the experiences we have to feel more negative than they may really be (i.e., I woke up late so now my whole day is ruined) (Ito et al., 1998).

(The bad seems to outweigh the good). https://twunroll.com/article/1267492380703428614

Where did the negativity bias come from? Broadly speaking, it evolved in nature; the negativity bias was beneficial for our ancestors because they were more likely to survive if they were attuned to the threats and dangers of the world around them. Their tendency to notice the ‘bad’ things in life helped them escape danger and survive. For example, picture an ancient cave-dweller venturing out into the harsh world around them to gather some mushrooms growing from a

(Being on the lookout for danger was essential for our ancestors’ survival). https://www.adcocksolutions.com/post/no-29-negativity-bias

nearby forest floor. It was definitely within the best interest of these early humans to be aware that some mushrooms are poisonous while others are not. One wrong bite could be fatal, so it was vital that they acted cautiously when picking mushrooms. The earlier they became aware of this negative stimulus, the better their chances of survival were (Vaish et al., 2008). In other words, being aware of the fact that poisonous mushrooms exist and, if they ate one, could have fatal consequences, helped them learn to distinguish between poisonous and safe mushrooms, and pick accordingly. Biologically speaking, the amygdala, or the almond-shaped brain structure that aids in the processing of emotions, activates the majority of its neurons in response to bad news. Once bad news is detected, it is quickly stored in memory. Positive news, on the other hand, takes much longer to be transferred from short-term, or working, memory to long-term memory (Jaworski, 2020).

Furthermore, since our attention dictates what we focus on, our bias to perseverate on the negative over the positive will impact where we direct our attention. Not only do negative experiences imprint on our brains more quickly than positive experiences, they also remain longer, and we are left thinking about negative experiences much longer than positive experiences. This can be seen through a variation of the Stroop task, specifically referred to as the

(An example of what participants may see during a traditional Stroop task). https://franklio.weebly.com/blog/the-stroop-effect-how-mixed-is-your-message

emotional Stroop task. In the original Stroop task, participants are presented with a list of words written in different colors, and asked to identify the color that each word is written in. When a word is different from the colors it is written in, the word creates interference and color-naming becomes difficult. Word-reading is an automatic process, meaning it occurs quickly with minimal effort and does not require the use of additional cognitive resources. It is cognitively demanding to override and inhibit this automatic process and instead name the color of the word. Thus, participants sometimes make errors and say the word instead of naming the color it is written in. The emotional Stroop task is similar to the original Stroop task, but it examines the response biases we hold for emotional words, both positive and negative. In the emotional Stroop task, participants are

(Overriding the automatic word-reading process takes cognitive effort and time). https://www.psytoolkit.org/lessons/stroop.html

presented with positive emotional words (such as champion), negative emotional words (such as hate, depressed, and crying) and neutral words (such as sky and carwash) written in different colors, and asked to identify the color that each word is written in (refer to image below). Typically, participants take longer to name the color of emotional words than neutral words, and they take longer to name the color of negative emotional words than positive emotional words. This happens because people are strongly affected by negative emotional subject matter, even if it is irrelevant to the task at hand. Despite the fact that participants only had to name the color that the word was written in, they found it much more difficult to pull their attention away from the negative information and instead direct it towards the color-naming task. This happens thanks to the negativity bias, as the negative information was given more attention and weight than the neutral and positive information was given (Liu et al., 2014).

 

(An example of what participants may see during an emotional Stroop task). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Emotional_Stroop_Task.jpg

Our bias towards negative information is everywhere; it permeates our everyday lives without our conscious awareness. For example, the negativity bias can come into play when we are taking risks, as losses often weigh more heavily in our minds than gains (Ito et al., 1998). The negativity bias can also influence you when you’re driving. One study used an emotional Stroop task to measure negativity biases and record behavioral data in self-categorized dangerous drivers and safe drivers. Researchers then compared this data, and found significantly stronger negativity biases in the dangerous drivers than in the safe drivers. Participants who had stronger negativity biases revealed having been in more car accidents than the participants with weaker negativity biases, suggesting that the powerful influence of negativity bias could explain some individual differences in safe versus dangerous driving behavior. In other words, dangerous drivers are more sensitive to negative information than safe drivers (Chai et al., 2016).

The negativity bias can also influence our perceptions of other people, especially our first impressions of them. According to the primacy effect, what we learn early on influences how we judge later information. Our initial impressions of others can be changed from positive or so-so to more negative than they need to be because we tend to be on the lookout for traits in people that could have negative consequences later on (i.e. bossy, rude) rather than positive traits. We are quick to notice the bad over the good. This also relates to our judgement and decision-making processes. Negative conclusions can be influenced by additional information that is positive, and positive conclusions can be influenced by additional information that is negative. So, while initial impressions can be changed with disconfirming evidence, we must make a conscious effort to apply that new information to our impression of someone and override what we had initially believed (Castañeda et al., 2016).

Clearly, the negativity bias can affect us in many ways, and it may seem pretty bad. But, while the negativity bias can seem like a drawback, it actually has many benefits. Being aware of the negative can still aid in survival — though perhaps in less obvious ways than it did millions of years ago (Hamlin & Baron, 2014). For example, being on the lookout for danger could help you avoid a life-threatening injury. Say you’re going cliff jumping with your friends on a hot summer day. You climb up to the top of the cliff you are going to jump off of and look down at the water far below you. Wait. What was that? You think you might see a few rocks just beneath the surface of the water where you are meant to jump, but you’re not positive—maybe it’s just your eyes playing tricks on you. You could jump and risk hitting the rocks instead of the water, or you could convince your friends to climb back down and check out the area, even though that takes some extra effort. Many people would realize that the negative consequences of jumping prematurely and hitting the rocks outweigh the positive consequences of jumping and managing to avoid the rocks. In this case, the fact that you are aware of negative stimuli and, in turn, act with extra caution may be in your best interest.

But, it is possible to override the negativity bias. Consciously being aware that you are focusing on the negative more than you are focusing on the positive could help you switch and balance your mindset, though overriding this automatic process would take great cognitive effort. One important thing you can do is practice positive self-talk. If you are able to be mindful of your experiences and make an effort to appreciate the good in life, no matter how small, you will be less likely to be overcome by the bad. Tune in to your inner voice; the next time you catch yourself using negative self-dialogue, take a different approach. “I can’t believe I overslept. I’m so stupid, now I’m going to be late for class. Today’s going to be the worst day,” could turn into “I wish I hadn’t overslept, but I will learn from this and not let it happen again. I made a mistake. This doesn’t have to dictate how the rest of my day goes. At least the weather’s warm and sunny today!” Appreciate the little victories and be patient — it might take time to get control of your negativity bias, but it can be done! (Jaworski, 2020).

(Making an effort to notice the good and appreciate the little things –like this small flower blooming among dead leaves– can help you get out of a negative mindset!) https://depositphotos.com/203368464/stock-photo-white-chrysanthemum-flower-growing-garden.html

 

So, the next time you’re having a bad day, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and focus on the good. You might realize that your day wasn’t actually as bad as you initially thought it was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Castañeda, L. E. G., Richter, B., & Knauff, M. (2016). Negativity bias in defeasible reasoning. Thinking & Reasoning22(2), 209–220. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/ 10.1080/13546783.2015.1117988

Chai, J., Qu, W., Sun, X., Zhang, K., & Ge, Y. (2016). Negativity bias in dangerous drivers. PLoS ONE11(1). https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0147083

Hamlin, J. K., & Baron, A. S. (2014). Agency Attribution in Infancy: Evidence for a Negativity Bias. PLoS ONE, 9(5). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A418707165/PPPC? u=mlin_n_bevlhs&sid=PPPC&xid=99a689dc

Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology75(4), 887–900. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/ 10.1037/0022-3514.75.4.887

Jaworski, M. (2020, February 19). The Negativity Bias: Why the Bad Stuff Sticks and How to Overcome It. https://www.psycom.net/negativity-bias.

Liu, G., Xin, Z., & Lin, C. (2014). Lax Decision Criteria Lead to Negativity Bias: Evidence from the Emotional Stroop Task. Psychological Reports114(3), 896–912. https://doi.org/ 10.2466/28.04.PR0.114k29w0

Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383– 403. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383

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