The negativity bias is a cognitive phenomenon where you tend to give more weight to negative events or outcomes than to similar positive ones. While we may intuitively understand this bias, it’s helpful to look at where it shows up and why. For us, it’s especially interesting to see how the negativity bias shows up in our accountability coaching.

How Negativity Bias Affects Us

1. Our Proclivity for Bad News:

The negativity bias means that we are psychologically predisposed to pay more attention to something negative than something positive. This preference leads us to spend more time consuming bad news, teaching media companies, including social media platforms and AI, to provide more of it to us. We may not like bad news, but we can’t help being more interested in it.

2. Negotiations:

In negotiations, losses are felt more intensely than gains. This aversion to loss affects both parties, making it more challenging to reach mutually beneficial agreements.

3. Relationships:

For a relationship to thrive, positive interactions must significantly outnumber negative ones by at least 5 to 1. Relationship expert John Gottman explains that for every negative interaction, five positive ones are needed to maintain a healthy balance.

4. Information Processing:

Our brains are wired to process negative information more quickly than positive information. Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, notes that we are more likely to notice an angry face in a crowd of smiling people than a smiling face in a crowd of angry people.

5. Feedback:

We tend to give more weight to negative feedback than to positive feedback. This is why a single negative review can overshadow numerous positive ones. Ever lose sleep over a single complaint despite many people giving you positive feedback? This is why. This is also likely why people are so sensitive to giving and receiving feedback.

6. Accountability Coaching:

In our coaching program, our clients often give more weight to missed commitments than to everything they complete during the week. It’s interesting to witness the turnaround that happens when they realize how much they’ve done. Although we are always aiming for our members to complete their commitments, a missed commitment causes much more negativity than exceeding a commitment leads to positivity. Part of our work is to provide perspective and a more balanced view by looking at the whole picture of the week.

The Origins of Negativity Bias

Rick Hanson, in his book Hardwiring Happiness, explains that negativity bias evolved as a survival mechanism. Early humans, who were more vigilant and sensitive to potential threats, were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. As a result, our brains are wired to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and resources.

Counteracting Negativity Bias

Negativity bias operates largely unconsciously, but we can take steps to “rewire” our brains by being intentional about our positive experiences.

1. Practice Mindfulness:

When something good happens, pause and take it in. This small act can significantly impact your outlook and brain chemistry. I’ve found that recognizing the positive experience in the moment and staying with it requires effort, while it’s nearly impossible to ignore and then shake the negative ones. Noticing that difference has been helpful in helping me let the positive sink in a bit more.

2. Sit with Positive Experiences:

Whenever something good happens, make a conscious effort to extend it out, even for a few seconds. My husband often teases me with a reminder to “sit with it” whenever I share something positive, helping me to reinforce this practice.

3. Acknowledge Positive Effort:

As coaches, we make sure to review every commitment, whether it was kept or missed. There is always someone who would like to skip over the things they got done and go right to what they didn’t. The truth is, we need accountability for both. We’ve found that reinforcing and acknowledging positive effort is as important as learning from what didn’t get done.

By understanding and addressing negativity bias, we can better manage our reactions to negative events and cultivate a more balanced and positive perspective. While we may not be able to change our brain’s default settings, we can create new neural pathways that promote a healthier outlook on life.