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The Negativity Bias: Why Bad Stuff Sticks

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Negativity Bias

"Good" and "bad" are among the first words and concepts we learn as toddlers. Most of us can readily characterize almost any experience, emotion, or outcome as good or bad. But our brain is wired to give more weight to the bad than the good.

The power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events, relationships, social networks, and even learning processes. Negative emotions last longer than positive ones, we tend to spend more time thinking about negative events, and we focus our attention more quickly on negative rather than positive information and stimuli. Even when we experience numerous good events in one day, one bad thing can be the thing we remember.

Perhaps the broadest manifestation of the power of bad events is in the psychology of trauma. A single traumatic experience can have long-term effects on health, well-being, outlook on life, self-esteem, and behavior. There is a wealth of research documenting the effects of trauma experienced early in life that influences physical and emotional health years later. In contrast, there is little evidence that single positive experiences can have the same kind of long-lasting effect. In a sense, trauma has no true opposite concept. But fear-inducing events leave indelible memory traces in the brain. Even after the threat has been extinguished, the brain retains a changed pattern of neuronal firing in response to that threat and of neuronal connections between cells.

Negative thoughts and emotions imprint on the brain more quickly, linger longer, and have a much greater impact than positive ones.

The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, is a cognitive bias that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on one's psychological state and mental processes than neutral or positive things. It explains why we’re more likely to notice, remember, and consider something bad about a new acquaintance, than we are something good, or when presented with a decision in which one can either gain or lose, the natural tendency is to avoid the loss. It also explains why criticism is much stickier than praise.

The brain’s primary job isn’t to think; it’s to keep us alive so it’s always scanning the landscape for danger. From an evolutionary standpoint, being wired for negativity is what has prevented our extinction. Over time, we’ve evolved, but we’ve retained that hypersensitivity to threats. While we may not be focused on which berries could kill us or if there is a saber-tooth tiger around the corner, the brain is on lookout for both physical and psychological dangers.

Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, and author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, explains this phenomenon as an “evolutionarily adaptation for bad to be stronger than good.” He writes, “Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures. The brain produces a greater surge in electrical activity when faced with negative stimuli than with positive or neutral stimuli and has evolved to react long before it realizes that to which it is reacting. As Ben Franklin said, ‘We are not so sensible of the greatest Health as of the least Sickness.’”

Negativity bias explains why company culture and employee engagement are far more damaged by dissatisfaction, stress, or frustration than improved by Frisbee Fridays, team-building exercises, or incentives. Countless studies show that negative emotions diminish social and intellectual resources as well as individual and team performance.

One study conducted by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada analyzed 60 business teams to determine how positive and negative comments impacted team effectiveness. This effectiveness was measured by financial performance, customer satisfaction, and feedback from the team members. Results showed that the most influential factor impacting effectiveness was the ratio of positive to negative comments; this ratio of positive to negative comments on the highest performing teams was 5.6 to 1, and the ratio on the lowest performing teams was 1 to 3, three negative comments for every positive one!

Leaders who communicate negativity are even more impactful than team dynamics, partially because they inherently carry more influence and partially because employees jump to wondering if they have done something to cause it. If leaders feel stressed or angry, even if their negative emotions have nothing to do with the team, they will spread the negativity and induce cortisol production in those around them. Emotional contagion is real.

“Your brain at positive performs significantly better … your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise … your brain is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral, or stressed.” – Shawn Achor

Research shows that when people work in a positive state of mind, performance improves on nearly every level—productivity, creativity, engagement, communication and problem-solving. The bottom line is that positivity makes the brain function better.

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