Overcoming our negativity bias

Anyone who has cycled a bicycle knows what it’s like to cycle into a strong wind, and how you focus on how hard it is to be blown back. Unfortunately, we don’t take the same notice if a tailwind pushes us forward; instead, it’s quickly forgotten.


It’s human nature to react this way, as cognitive psychologist Prof Thomas Gilovich noted in his study, The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry’. Quite simply, bad is stronger than good. Our brains have a built-in negativity bias which means we notice and focus on the headwinds, but often forget or barely notice the tailwinds.


Or, as neuropsychologist Dr Rick Hanson puts it, negative experiences stick like Velcro, while the positives slip away like Teflon.


Hanson points out our brains are inherently inclined to pay closer attention to negative stimuli than positive ones. This negativity bias, developed over millennia of evolution, served our ancestors well in a world filled with danger and threats. By prioritising the detection of danger, we greatly increased our chances of survival and reproduction.


Basically, we’re wired to give greater priority to potential threats and negatives than to positives. If you have a bad headache, it’s hard to focus on anything else other than the thought of getting rid of it. But if you have a normal, headache-free day, are you smiling with joy, noting how grateful you are not to have a headache? Of course not. Again, this is just human nature.


However, that doesn’t mean we are powerless to correct this negativity bias. We can’t eradicate this bias towards the negative, but we can reduce it.


Simply being aware of it is a start. It’s important to remember most of the things in one’s life are likely to be positive or neutral. As Rick Hanson points out, many good things happen every day, ‘such as a lovely sunset, someone is nice to you, you finish a batch of emails, or you learn something new’. Not only that, he adds, there are many other good things that are ongoing aspects of your world (for example, your children are healthy, you live in a peaceful part of the world) or yourself (good personal qualities such as fairness, sincerity, determination, and so on).



It’s important for our mental well-being to take in and absorb the good, says Hanson, ‘instead of positive experiences washing through you like water through a sieve’.


That means looking for good events, and turning them into good experiences. So, maybe you notice the smell of fresh coffee in the morning. Maybe someone tells a joke that makes you laugh. Maybe someone pays you a compliment.


When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it. As Hanson puts it, ‘let them in’. Try to do this at least five or more times a day. Get used to noticing and appreciating the little good things in your world and in yourself. You can do it on the fly in daily life, says Hanson, or at moments when you have more time to yourself, such as before falling asleep at night. Take these simple opportunities, and allow yourself to feel good about them, to savour them.


It is, as Hanson points out, a bit like sitting down to a meal: don’t just look at it or eat it mindlessly – enjoy the taste.


Over time, this breeds a more balanced, positive mindset. Kids can also benefit from this same process. Rick Hanson notes spirited children often ‘zip along to the next thing before good feelings have a chance to consolidate in the brain’, while anxious kids may ignore or downplay good news. Instead, children can be encouraged to pause at the end of their day and remember what went well and think about things that make them happy. Let those positive thoughts and feelings sink in.


This is not about trying to be unrealistically positive. You will naturally still see the difficult parts of life, but being more aware of the good aspects of life, and paying more attention to them, will help you keep a sense of perspective and help you to better meet the inevitable challenges of ordinary life. 

(First published in Southern Star on 14/3/2024)