You have a negativity bias

Yesterday I had cause to remind a friend not only to look at his unpleasant situation in a negative way. It was my nudge to remind him things may not be as bad as they seemed to him.

It got me thinking about how different our initial impulses can be. And how these impulses can color our thoughts and perspectives.

I’ve always known, just from life experience, that some people have the tendency to walk around with a perpetual cloud over their heads (think: Joe Btfsplk, the character in the satirical comic strip Li’l Abner); while others naturally exude light and sunshine (Winnie the Pooh springs to mind).

These are silly exaggerated extremes, of course, but you get the idea. It’s not as if the more negative types live without laughter and optimism, not at all. They just seem to focus first on what is or could go wrong and on worst-case scenarios.

Take my honey, for instance. Whatever I ask him, typically the first word out of his mouth is “no”… even as he proceeds to give me a more “yes” answer. I think it’s funny. Of the two of us, he is Joe. I’m Winnie.

Until recently, I would have guessed that humans were pretty evenly split between Joes and Winnies. I’d have guessed wrong.

When I started delving more into psychology again, I learned (or relearned?) that scientists have determined that we all have—in fact, are born with—a negativity bias.

That bias goes way back to our distant ancestors, nomadic hunter-gatherers, for whom it was a matter of life and death to be hyper-alert to dangers, especially in the form of predatory animals. If they failed to notice the tiger, they became the lunch they were hunting for.

We first developed the oldest part of our brain called the amygdala. (I’m not going deeply into science, so stay with me.) This area of our brain is best known for controlling our fear impulses and to respond quickly to (real or perceived) physical or emotional threats, with fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Under imminent danger, the amygdala can act faster than we can think! (The amygdala also regulates our emotions and plays a pivotal role in memory, but that’s another story.)

In today’s modern world, we hardly need to be as hyper-vigilant as our early ancestors for physical survival. Have you faced a loose tiger recently? No, didn’t think so.

Yet that amygdala still serves us well. It can be activated by anything that scares us, from a seeing a child playing on an open street to going on-stage to speak in public.

And so, we have retained the tendency to notice, learn from, and act on negative information far more than positive information.

Want relatable proof? Think of the last wonderful day you had and then someone slighted you, said something mean about you. Did you stay thinking about all the goodness that happened all day? Or did you start ruminating (too long) on the slight received? Another example: given two news stories to read, a tragic one and a feel-good one, most people will read first about the tragedy; it’s the reason bad news invariably get the top headlines.

Most fears are exaggerated. As you go through life, your brain acquires expectations based on your experiences, particularly negative ones. When situations occur that are even remotely similar, your brain automatically applies its expectations to them; if it expects pain or loss, or even just the threat of these, it pulses fear signals. But because of the negativity bias, many expectations of pain or loss are overstated or completely unfounded.

Rick Hanson

What does this negativity bias have to do with me or cancer?

A diagnosis of cancer (or any serious disease) for most of us is quite fear-inducing. It raises a lot of questions and when we look for answers we can easily get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material, some of it conflicting. Well-meaning family and friends, too, can offer us information they deem valuable, and yet may be misguided or contribute to overwhelm.

The negativity bias shows up differently for each of us. It seems to me that if you know you are more a Joe than a Winnie, you may need to put in extra effort to balance the bias.

As I said, I’m a Winnie. I easily see the positive in any situation and am not inclined to wallow in self-pity. (Note: self-pity is another good topic for me to journal about later… but for now, don’t feel bad if you are feeling bad… I’m not a fan of ignoring our natural emotions nor of putting on a happy mask).

But every one of us needs to be aware of how our negativity bias is affecting how we are responding to information, to what is happening with our bodies, to our regular tasks, to our relationships. Our bias may not be serving us well.

Here’s one example of how being hardwired to be negative can harm us: it’s tempting, when reading the research about our kind of cancer, to look at the prognoses reported, ie, expected lifespan. It irritates me that you can even find survival rate calculators online! Aaack! A negativity bias may find numbers that are scary and depressing and fails to remember that we are not a statistic and every body is different. These “calculators” are based on general population statistics and have little to do with individual cases. My mother, for instance, died of cancer in her pancreas a healthy handful of years beyond the average, and that despite her not undergoing any chemo because of her advanced age.

It doesn’t help us to focus on the numbers. Instead, live each day with attention paid to joy and self-kindness.

Tell me, are you a Joe or Winnie? How does that play out for you? What do you do to overcome your negativity bias?

See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.

Eckhart Tolle

PS. I’ll be happy to read your thoughts and/or questions. And please share this journal with anyone you think may find value in my musings or our dialog.

9 comments

  • Francisca, this was an excellent article. I so identify with exaggerated fear and need to learn to breathe more and trust that it is only a brief part of our journey. It is so important to walk slowly through the journey… at least that is true for me.

    • I suspect it’s nearly universally true, Helen. We–especially in the West–are raised to be busy, productive; it’s almost become a badge of honor. Then when life calls on us to slow down, we hardly know how. You and I are going to get through our difficult passage slowly, step-by-step. Sending healing energy your way, with gentle hugs. Thanks, too, for leaving your thoughts. 🌸🙏🌸

  • Thank you for this Francisca! I am a Winnie too. But there are times when the negative bias gets the best of Winnie too.

    Sending you healing prayers ❤️

    • Oh yes, Gayle… even our Winnie needs to stay vigilant and aware… and make adjustments to his perspective when called for. Appreciate your prayers. 🌸🙏🌸

  • I feel a great sympathy for your friend. He sounds exactly like me 🙂
    I am definitely a Joe!

    I believe that a positivity bias can be equally wrong and dangerous as a negativity bias.

    What we need is something in the middle. An accurate assessment of the risks and that in an unbiased way. Statistics can help.

    Statistics say your life expectancy in the US as a man is 75. Too bad if you die earlier and be thankful if you live longer. But it gives you a sense of unbiased reality.

    Why are we all born, as you pointed out correctly, with a negativity bias? It is to protect us from harm. Might it be the risk of a tiger or an accident due to paragliding.

    I would recommend to anyone to not repress his/her negativity bias as it might save your life.
    (By the way I am not only a Joe but also a hypochondriac)

    I have done (surprise, surprise) reckless things in my life that in hindsight I would never do again. Some might argue that it kills the joy and the adventure of life. Again, a clear assessment of the risks can guide you accordingly. I will take the plane but will pass on kickboxing.
    This is the reason I discouraged my son to play rugby, do boxing or any extreme sports.

    My visceral fear of hospitals and doctors gave me the strength to change a relatively unhealthy lifestyle to a very healthy one. It is not easy to skip the “good” things in life like sugar, cheese, fatty meals, alcohol, ice-cream, meat, etc. To exercise and go to bed instead of watching Netflix till late at night. I would probably not be motivated without my latent “angst”.

    Does it makes my life less fun or boring? It depends on who you ask. Yes, I never jumped from a helicopter, never did paragliding or climbed the Everest. For some this might be worth the risks. Personally, I don’t need those thrills. I am a contented man. I achieved more than I ever expected. I did not turn into a total failure as I expected to be. Thankful again.

    As Maya Angelou said: “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

    Sine my son Brian was born I prepared for the worst. Being aware that tomorrow I could be dead. When this unfortunate event will happen, I will be prepared, and I will not need to fix things at the last minute or die with the regret that I have left a mess behind.
    I am thankful I am still alive, and it gives me paradoxically a sense of peace of mind.
    I am ready to go when my time will come. Francisca, it is not all bad and gloomy to face your (imagined or real fears and dangers). On the contrary it is very liberating. You don’t need to face your fears every day… but be open to listen to them.

    Maybe I will die in my sleep peacefully. That is the best scenario. What are my odds?
    I am prepared for the worst, I wrote and told my loved ones I want to die when all hope of recovery is lost. On my own terms. If I have a non curable illness and I am in pain they should let me go. It is not a nice thought to know they might not (or be able) to honour my wishes but at least they clearly know. Philippines, after all, is not the best country for dying in dignity.

    I really find it strange that most people don’t want to talk about those issues and that while sickness, suffering and ultimately dead is inevitable.

    So yes, to all of you reading this, I would recommend listening to your negativity bias. Face your worst fears. Prepare for the very worst and hope for the best. Since most of your fears might never happen you will feel blessed that in the end everything turned out well.

    HOPE FOR THE BEST BUT PREPARE FOR THE WORST!

    • By the way, you should give your commenters the option to edit their comments. I saw a couple of typos 🙂

      • I will look into whether this template can allow that, Sidney. I agree it would be useful. Am also looking for a way for a commenter to get notified of responses to their comments.

    • Dear Sidney, I am so tickled that my posts prompt you to self-reflect. You may be surprised that I agree with most of what you write today.

      And you have anticipated some subjects I plan to cover, like our fears, which as you say, are something to face, not to ignore… they provide us valuable information about ourselves and our circumstances. That’s not quite the same as the negativity bias I explained yesterday, which is an impulse that is not necessarily rooted in reality. I will wait to write about fears and anxieties another day. And like you, I hold no reluctance to consider and talk about death and dying… more about this later, too!

      Thank you, Sidney! I hope other readers, too, will see the value in your thoughtful comments. x

By Francisca

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