Our innate bias to focus on the negative and how to compensate for its effects

Published on September 18, 2013

Have you ever obsessed about the one critical comment someone made to you despite the fact that they also made quite a few positive remarks? For some reason you keep ruminating about that one negative remark. You think about it over and over, perhaps looking for a way to argue better against it or at least to forget about it, but the painful memory just keeps playing back in your mind like a broken record. Is there a scientific explanation for this tendency to focus, sometimes obsessively, on the negative aspects of our lives? Are we really powerless to control our bias to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive in our lives?

Story of the two Wolves

Two wolves

There is a wise old North American Indian story about two wolves that I think helps us understand this bias to focus on the angry, painful, or fearful things in life. Although I told another version of the two wolf story in my previous post, I think it deserves retelling because it illustrates vividly how this bias can influence our thoughts, emotions, and actions in very negative and maladaptive ways. Here is the alternative version as provided by the website.

An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, "Let me tell you a story.

I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.

But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times."

He continued, "It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.

But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.

Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit."

The boy looked intently into his Grandfather's eyes and asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?"

The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, "The one I feed."

Why do we tend to feed the negative wolf?

In reply to my previous post about the two wolves, a reader asked why it was so easy to feed the negative wolf and difficult to feed the positive wolf. The answer is complex involving a number of factors. In this post I will discuss one of the most important of these factors namely the innate tendency to prioritize the negative over the positive. This tendency has been much studied by psychologists and is coined the “negativity bias”.

Evidence that we bias towards the negative

Roy Baumeister, a psychologist who often tackles controversial topics, wrote a thought provoking article entitled “Bad is stronger than good.” He reviewed the extensive research supporting the existence of the negativity bias. For example, research shows that we respond with more emotional distress to losing ten dollars than to gratification for winning ten dollars. Another research has indicated that the brain responds with a greater electrical signal to a picture of a negative face than a positive face. A final example is that we take longer to find a happy face in a crowd of angry faces than to find an angry face in a crowd of happy faces.

This and other evidence supports the idea that the mind has a built in bias to respond to negative things more strongly than it responds to positive things. It also suggests that the negativity bias is at lease partly innate with leaning more important later in life.

It is important to note that this bias is at work whether we are perceiving external reality or experiencing our inner mental world of thoughts, feelings, and imaginations. Indeed our imagination has the ability to create truly horrific and disturbing scenes as most of us know by personal experience. Have you ever laid in bed just after awakening and thought about the coming day and then imagined confronting your boss at work and having a terrible argument? And you are not even out of bed yet! And have you noticed that such imagined negative situations occur much more frequently than imagined positive ones?

Explanation of the origin of the negativity bias in our evolutionary past

There is a powerful reason for us to possess this negativity bias and it arises out of our evolutionary history. If an individual acts in a way that results in increased chances of survival and reproduction, then that behaviour is adaptive and through natural selection it will become innate. Such behavioural adaptations include the negative bias because it of course has great survival value for an animal, or a human, to pay greater attention to possible dangers than to possible rewards. The old saying “Better to be safe than sorry” could be replaced with “Better to be alive and hungry than dead”. Being alive gives one the opportunity to look for other safer opportunities in the future.

How to overcome the effects of the negativity bias: bad outweighs good by a factor of three to five

Our negativity bias evolved during early evolution when survival and reproduction were the main goals in life. However, in our highly developed modern society, survival and reproduction, are no longer the main challenges in life and they have been replaced by things like learning how to cooperate with others in the home, in the workplace, and in our purely social activities. In these areas the negativity bias can be counterproductive and cause us much distress.

We cannot simply turn the negativity bias off and on because it is an essential part of human nature; we still need it in dangerous situations. But modern psychological research has suggested that we can overcome its effects if we counteract our negative experiences by consciously increasing our number of happy or positive experiences. And interestingly this research has shown that it takes between three to five positive experiences to compensate for one negative one.

Baumeister in his “Bad is stronger than good” article discusses two research studies quantifying how much more frequent positive events must be than negative, in order to compensate for the effects of negative events in our life. Firstly he describes work by Barbra Frederickson, one of the pioneers of positive psychology, which indicates that we must have at least three counterbalancing positive events for every negative one in order for us to thrive and actually flourish in our lives. Secondly, John Gottman, a famous family therapist, found that for every negative interaction between a couple in an intimate relationship, five positive interactions are required to restore the quality of the relationship.

Conclusion: Attaining the three to one balance between positive and negative in your life

So although we have a built in tendency to pay more attention to the negative than the positive, that does not mean our lives have to become darkened by them. Instead we can consciously choose to arrange at least between 3 and 5 pleasurable events in our lives for every negative one. I will discuss ways to do this ratio balancing in a future post. But one simple example would be to have a hobby that we engage in just for the fun of it. If we have a rough encounter at work with our boss, we can make time to engage in our hobby that night. Finally remember that we can be both the receiver and giver of negative events. So the next time before your criticize your mate, be ready to make five positive remarks or actions just to compensate for that one negative statement.


Category(s):Happiness, Positive Psychology

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore

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