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Bad News Sells: How our ‘Negativity Bias’ chooses Bad over Good

Think about the last time you had a great day. Just kidding. Think about the last time you had a bad day. Then try and think a little further: was it really all bad, from the moment you got out of bed? Probably not; one bad thing happened, and then the good lunch you had with your friends and the job interview you aced just didn’t seem so important anymore. Or maybe you were at work, and your boss is gave you some well-deserved praise. Then she told you there was one line on your paperwork that needed to be tweaked, and before you knew it, you were beating yourself up for that one mistake for the rest of the week. Or maybe you went home after work and turned on the news. The coverage never surprises you: war, crime, disaster. Maybe you wonder why this is. Your answer? Negative news attracts more consumers (Nguyen & Claus, 2013).

Our brains tend to focus on and prioritize negative information, even when there is just as much (or more) positive information.

If you’ve had a bad day (that with a different perspective, could’ve been a great day), taken criticism a little too personally, or found yourself transfixed by a car accident on the highway, chances are you’ve experienced a cognitive bias called the Negativity Bias. The Negativity Bias refers to how we pay more attention to, and care more about, negative negative information than we do positive information.

Why do we pay more attention to negative information than positive information? Emotionally, this hardly seems like an enjoyable way of life. But prioritizing negative information can serve valuable purposes – it can even help us survive in dangerous situations (Langeslag & Van Strien, 2018). Paying attention to negative information around can help us notice a threat- like an attacker- so we can react and protect ourselves.

This bias has shown up in all sorts of ways: we are more sensitive towards emotionally negative events; basically, it’s easier for something to make us feel sad than for something to make us feel happy. We often prefer to spend more time and attention on negative events than positive events, like remembering negative experiences or watching disasters on the news. We are more likely to notice negative events, or negative traits in people. Negative personality traits, like laziness or jealousy are more important to us than traits like kindness or honesty when we decide whether to like a person (Rozin & Royzman, 2001; Ito, Larsen, Smith, & Cacioppo, 1998).

The Negativity Bias has a lot to do with how our brains direct our attention. Negative information holds our attention for longer than neutral or positive information. Because we’re drawn to negative information so automatically, it is difficult to control our attention and direct it on something else (positive) instead. The Stroop Task, a famous attention task in cognitive psychology, can also tell us about the negativity bias; specifically, a version of the task referred to as the Emotional Stroop Task. This is how it works:

In the original Stroop Task, participants are presented a list of words that are written in different colors. They are told to report the color the word is written in to the experimenter. Participants have to signore the meaning of the word, which is difficult because reading is (often) a fairly immediate and automatic process. Participants then have to consciously move their attention to focus on the color of the word and report it to the experimenter in order to complete the task. This is particularly tricky, because the meaning of the word (blue, for example) and the color of the word (the font of the word ‘blue’ is colored green, for example) don’t match.

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In the Emotional Stroop Task, participants are shown words like these and asked to tell the experimenter the color of each word.

The Emotional Stroop Task is based on the same concept, but instead of color words, participants are presented with negative and neutral words in different colors, and are asked to report to the color of the word to complete the task.

What tends to happen in the emotional Stroop task is that participants take more time to say the color of negative words than neutral words, because it is harder to stop paying attention to negative information (the word) and start paying attention to something else (the color).

 

 

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Natural selection occurring in evolution has hardwired us to be biased towards negative information, whether it’s noticing it first, or in this case, expecting it constantly.

 

 

This Negativity Bias probably isn’t as useful as it once was, say, one or two hundred thousand years ago, when our survival mechanisms were more important in our day to day lives. But it is a bias we want to keep around. Let’s say you go scuba diving in a coral reef. The coral reef is taking up a lot of your attention, as it should – coral reefs are beautiful. But then a shark appears, and it doesn’t look friendly. In this case, you really shouldn’t be prioritizing that beautiful coral reef anymore; focusing on the negative information could save your life. In this situation, the Negativity Bias may still be considered less necessary in modern life, but in this rare situation it may save your life. This benefit of survival is a good reason negative events effect us more than positive events do, even when the negative events and the positive events are equally significant. Research has led scientists to consider the bias to be based in evolutionary theory. As humans have evolved, we have learned a threat (negative) is usually more relevant to our survival than a reward (positive) (See Cacioppo, Gardner, & Berntson, 1990.)

The Negativity Bias is actually stronger when it involves a threat to our survival. If we see an angry face, we are biased to pay attention to that negative expression- but if we see an angry face and a snake, the snake captures more of our attention. The visual system in our bodies are more powerfully adjusted to notice snakes  because of the pressure of snakes on  our survival, and therefore our evolution (and primate evolution in a historical context) (Langeslag & Van Strien, 2018). In terms of the Negativity Bias, angry faces would attract more attention than smiling ones- but if we want to pass our genes down to the next generation, we’d better make sure we’re not bitten by a deadly, poisonous snake.

There are lots of cognitive biases like the Negativity Bias that seem like somewhat unnecessary relics of a different time (the mental equivalent of the gallbladder, for comparison). This is because they are! Our brains update a lot slower than our iPhones. The extent to which we care what other people think of us is another example of an outdated cognitive bias. This bias can be somewhat helpful, but we really shouldn’t have to expend as much cognitive energy thinking about it as much as we do. When humans were hunter-gatherers, being accepted by the group was important; if you weren’t, you might be booted out, in which case you were far more vulnerable to, say, being eaten by a wild animal. Caring what people thought of you sometimes kept you alive. These days, if we don’t fit in with a group, we can just go on reddit and find a different one. However, our brains have not quite caught up with this new way of living: desperately wanting to fit in and be liked, by anyone and everyone, is an almost universal human trait. Evolution is slow; we are still hardwired for what would have been a more advantageous trait many thousands of years ago.

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When the Negativity Bias isn’t keeping us safe, it can sometimes make life worse for us, like the character in this comic focused on one insult among many positive comments.

Sometimes the negativity bias can serve us well. But sometimes, it can distract us, bring us down, and generally make life worse for us. We can sometimes feel the unfortunate extra weight of evolution here; if negative information in our environment is very rarely going to threaten our survival these days, having to pay attention to it more just seems unpleasant. So is there anything we can do about it? Just knowing that the bias exists might seem helpful, but it’s actually not. (This is its own bias!) However, actively trying to focus on or generate positive emotions, like remembering to savor a positive emotion or writing down what you’re grateful for, can always help us feel better (Cunha, Pellanda, & Reppold, 2019). But, next time you avoid a car crash, or check to make sure that growling dog isn’t still following you, for example – remember to be grateful for your Negativity Bias.

 

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