The Negativity Bias

The Negativity Bias

It’s fair to say that our prehistoric ancestors had very different lives to us. In the developed world, most of us rarely struggle to meet our basic survival needs, such as finding food and water, and we are no longer troubled by predators. However, since the days that we did battle amongst the food chain, our brains have hardly changed. This has left us with something called ‘the negativity bias’1. In a world where depression is a bigger threat to life than predators2, the negativity bias is more of a hinderance than a help.

Why did we evolve to go negative?

Our brains evolved for survival and reproduction, not for happiness. Assuming the worst did our ancestors well: assuming a rustle in the bushes is a Sabre-toothed tiger when it isn’t, is better than assuming you are safe when there is a tiger.

The tendency to look for danger and assume the worst, whilst helpful in our evolutionary past, can leave us in a state of constant panic, worry and anxiety even though our daily exposure to fatal circumstance is greatly reduced compared to our ancestors.

The two brains

We essentially have two brains: the conscious brain (the cortex) and the emotional brain (the limbic system). These are functionally and anatomically distinct from each other and the conscious brain appeared much later in our evolutionary history. The cortex generates ideas and the limbic system tells us what feels good and what feels bad3.

We need both to make sense of the world, but they can often be at odds with each other. For instance, although you consciously know that cake isn’t good for you, the good feelings your limbic system releases when you eat cake makes it hard to abstain.

Why things feel good

Things only feel good because of ‘happy’ neurochemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin and Endorphin4. They evolved to make us to move towards the things which give us a survival or reproductive advantage.

Neurochemical Description Survival advantage
Dopamine Feeling of understanding, having your beliefs confirmed
Anticipation of meeting a need5
Understanding the world is a survival advantage
Drives you towards meeting your needs
Serotonin The feeling of social dominance6 For our ancestors, higher social status improved access to resources and mates
Oxytocin The feeling of trust and forming social bonds7 We evolved as social animals – there are several advantages to living in a group
Endorphin The body’s natural pain killer8 This gave our ancestors the ability to carry on in the face of pain, which was an advantage in escaping predators and in social conflict

Whether it feels like it or not, everything you do is motivated by your basic survival drives, which you inherited from your ancestors. Unfortunately, the ways our brains learn to get a hit of ‘happy’ neurochemicals aren’t always good for us, e.g., addiction, overeating and negative thinking.

Positive feedback consolidates negative circuits

Every time your understanding of the world is ‘proven’ to be correct, Dopamine is released, and your brain feels that a survival need is being met (i.e., your understanding of the world is correct). If you expect the worst, and your cortex can find a way of confirming this expectation, you get a hit of dopamine… ‘I knew it’. This behaviour is known as ‘the confirmation bias’9.

Affirming assumptions is a natural human behavior associated with survival, whereas challenging a belief seems to be an odd and contrived action.10 (Glick, 2017, p.132)

Identifying negative thoughts

Breaking out of negativity is not easy, it takes persistence and requires acceptance that not all your feelings are true representations of the world. Being aware of your emotions and analysing them before acting on them is a form of mindfulness.

Next time you notice yourself having a negative thought which makes you feel anxious, try to recognise the bad feeling and try to find some good in the situation instead. This isn’t likely to make you feel better right away but over time it can actually change the way that you think and feel.

Positivity habit formation

A habit is a small routine or action which you undertake on a regular basis. You may not know it, but habits can have an enormous impact on your life simply because you perform them frequently. Thinking negatively is a habit but the great thing about habits is that they can be broken, and new habits can be formed in their place.

Professor Loretta Breuning explains in her books, ‘The Science of Positivity’, and, ‘Habits of a Happy Brain,’ that it takes 45 consecutive days of practise to build a habit. As unnatural as it may feel at first, practising a positivity habit every day can help to break you out of your negative thought patterns.

Professor Breuning recommends keeping a positivity journal: writing down three good things that happen each day. Instead, you may choose to do this in your head, however a journal acts as a reminder and a record, which can help to keep you on track.

Finding positivity may feel dishonest at first, because it is not how you truly feel. However, the more you do it, the less unnatural it will feel.

Overcoming the negativity bias

We are burdened by a negativity bias, inherited from our ancestors. However, with enough repetition, to gain the formation of a happiness inducing habit, you can free yourself of your biased brain.

Sally Neath, HealthCare21 Communications, Macclesfield