Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias > Is the “bad stuff” stronger than the “good stuff”?

Is the “bad stuff” stronger than the “good stuff”?

Imagine that you are out in the city with some friends that you haven’t seen in a while. You have just finished a delicious brunch together and have had a morning full of fun and catching up with one another. You take a walk outside and soak up some sun before heading back to get some work done at home. When you leave your friends and get to the train station, you hear an announcement that the trains are delayed and you are stuck in the crowded station waiting for almost an hour. You become frustrated and upset, and by the time you get home, the bad experience at the train station weighs on your mind more heavily than does your morning with your friends.

Does this scenario seem plausible to you? Do you ever feel like the bad experiences in your life always seem to outweigh the good? If so, you have experienced the negativity bias, or negativity effect. The negativity bias states that negative events are more impactful on an individual’s mental state than neutral or positive events. These negative events could include unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or occurrences. Most of us are susceptible to the negativity bias, but certain conditions can make one even more vulnerable.

Why does this bias exist? Wouldn’t we prefer that positive events have more of an effect on our mind than the negative ones? It turns out that the negativity bias was originally useful to humans for survival. Evolutionarily, it provided a way for us to be cautious of environmental dangers around us and to be alert to threats and worst case scenarios. Think about it this way: when early humans were gathering food, they may have had to distinguish between certain berries that were edible versus others that were poisonous. The negative consequences of eating a poisonous berry far outweigh the positive consequence of eating an edible berry. So, it was in their best interest to be extra cautious and be acutely aware of negative stimuli. Through evolution, the negativity bias has become an automatic process. Automatic processes are fast, easy, and do not require attentional resources, so we may automatically process information without conscious knowledge that we are doing so. Since the negativity bias is an automatic process, it is present during early processing in the brain — that is, negative stimuli activates electrical neural activity with greater power than positive stimuli or neutral stimuli (Berkovic, 2017). The negativity bias is not necessarily advantageous or critical to our survival in present day, but it has remained. However, not all individuals experience the negativity bias; some actually experience an optimism bias, which you can read about here. It turns out that the negativity bias is most prevalent in individuals with depression.

Before exploring the link between depression and the negativity bias, it is helpful to understand a little more about how the negativity bias presents itself in daily life, as well as how it can be tested. One way to test the negativity bias is through the Stroop task. The Stroop task is an attentional task that uses colors and words to assess attentional processes. The standard Stroop task presents the names of colors written in an incongruent color; that is, the word blue may be written in red. During the task, participants are told to say the color that the word is written in rather than reading the actual word. Saying the color correctly means that the individual is able to use controlled processing to override their automatic processes, which

homemade example of the emotional Stroop task!

would be the reading of the word. Another version of this task, the emotional Stroop task, can be used to examine response bias for task-unrelated negative words and for highly emotional words (Lui et al., 2014). In the emotional Stroop task, ten positive and ten negative words were used, and participants responded to the color of the words (either red or green). Participants were asked to respond to the print color of the words as fast as possible but were instructed to ignore the meaning of the words. Afterwards, participants did a recognition task in which they were randomly presented with ten negative/positive words from earlier as well as ten positive/negative unseen, distraction words. The participants were told to decide whether or not they had previously seen each word (Lui et al., 2014).The researchers connected these findings to the idea of lax decision criteria, which means, in this scenario, that participants said that they saw negative words more often than positive ones even if the negative word did not appear on the task. This ties back to the aforementioned evolutionary perspective, as people are more likely to experience greater negative consequences if they do not notice a negative stimuli than positive consequences if they identify a positive stimuli (Lui et al., 2014). Thus, the emotional Stroop task shows that the negativity bias is persistent in non-life threatening situations and that many individuals have this preserved defense mechanism still present in their cognitive functioning.

The Stroop task shows us that the negativity bias is present in individuals. Did you know, however, that the negativity bias is also evident in groups? Let’s think about this in terms of the game “telephone”. In that game, one person starts by whispering a sentence into another person’s ear and they pass on what they heard. If it is a long sentence and if there are a lot of people, by the time the sentence gets passed back around, the message is often very different from the original. This is known as the social transmission of information, and a study done by Bebbington et al. (2017) tested this phenomena specifically in regard to the negativity bias. They tested the transmission of negative information through writing, but the idea is the same. Essentially, when the original story consisted of a variation of negative, positive, and ambiguous events, the negative story events were remembered most accurately throughout the chain of social transmission. Thus, not only was much of the original story lost, but also participants remembered and reproduced a greater number of negative than positive story events (Bebbington et al., 2017).

The game telephone involves passing on information from person to person, but often, the original message gets lost!

Humans have a tendency to focus on or remember negative events over positive events. It makes one wonder if this phenomenon impedes daily life. Well, it does — especially for those with depression. Depressed individuals show a stronger negativity bias and a weaker positivity offset than individuals without the mood disorder, as shown by Gollan et al. (2016) in a study that explored evaluative responses to emotional information in depression. Participants in this study viewed emotional images and indicated their positive and negative responses to each picture. These responses were then evaluated to calculate positivity offset scores and negativity bias scores. Results suggested that individuals with depression have increased reactivity to negative, unpleasant information as opposed to positive, pleasant information.

The good news, however, is that these negative thinking patterns can be changed — especially if you are aware of them. For individuals with depression, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be incredibly helpful. CBT focuses on changing automatic negative thoughts that can contribute to depression (or other mood disorders). Individuals are taught to look at evidence that supports or refutes their negative thoughts in order to evaluate their thinking patterns more effectively to engage in healthier thinking patterns. With enough practice, the controlled process of evaluating this information and not automatically attending to information as negative can become a more automatic process. So, when you next find yourself focusing on the negative, try to step back, evaluate the situation, and recognize that there are probably some positive events that you can focus on instead!


Bebbington, K., MacLeod, C., Ellison, T. M., & Fay, N. (2017). The sky is falling: Evidence of a negativity bias in the social transmission of information. Evolution And Human Behavior, 38(1), 92-101. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.07.004

Berkovic, E. (2017, February 09). Why Does Your Brain Love? Negativity? The Negativity Bias | MIUC. Retrieved from https://www.miuc.org/brain-love-negativity-negativity-bias/

Gollan, J. K., Hoxha, D., Hunnicutt-Ferguson, K., Norris, C. J., Rosebrock, L., Sankin, L., & Cacioppo, J. (2016). Twice the negativity bias and half the positivity offset: Evaluative responses to emotional information in depression. Journal Of Behavior Therapy And Experimental Psychiatry, 52166-170. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.09.005

Liu, G., Xin, Z., & Lin, C. (2014). Lax decision criteria lead to negativity bias: Evidence from the Emotional Stroop Task. Psychological Reports, 114(3), 896-912. doi: 10.2466/28.04.PR0.114k29w0

  1. April 29th, 2018 at 15:20 | #1

    Hey Vaness! This post caught my eye because it seems like it is at the opposite end of the spectrum of my bias: the optimism bias. The optimism bias refers to the idea that we under estimate the probability of negative events occurring in our lives. The portion of your blog post about the Stroop task was really interesting to me because I learned that both the negative bias and the optimism bias have their roots in attention. I found a study for the optimism bias that used a visual search task to determine if people attend to positive or negative stimuli faster when they have optimistic expectations. When people have optimistic expectations, they are faster to attend to positive stimuli, which lead the authors of the study to conclude that for optimistic people attending to positive stimuli is a sort of automatic process. I wonder if the authors of my study asked participants about the frequency of the stimuli if they would have been more likely to say “angry” and other negative stimuli were more frequently shown than positive stimuli like “happy”. It makes sense to me, based on reading your post, why people might remember the negative stimuli more. If you see an angry face, that’s probably going to have more dangerous implications for you than if you see a happy face. In terms of your portion about depression, I learned through my research about the optimism bias that people with depression do not exhibit the optimism bias. At the neurological level it has to do with levels of dopamine and frontal lobe regulation. It’s interesting that one bias has us dwelling on the negatives, while another has our brains hardwired to expect positive things to happen. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for us to cope with the negatives. We are hard wired in some ways to expect positive things to happen. We over estimate the likeliness of a positive event happening in our lives and we under estimate the potential of a negative event happening. When the negative event does occur, this violates our expectations and the cognitive dissonance is too much to bear. We end up dwelling on these negatives thanks to our negative bias. Really awesome work with this post! Very interesting to see how these biases interact!

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