How to overcome our negativity bias

Have you ever noticed a cascade of pessimistic thoughts swooping through your mind and changing your entire mindset in an instant to one that catastrophises and has you believing that a situation is doomed?  It’s the mind that highlights criticism and dismisses a compliment, that dwells on an insult or fixates on a mistake. Most people are familiar with this trend. This asymmetrical tendency to store the negative in our mind and dismiss the positive is due to a phenomena called the negativity bias. It is a hard wired tendency of the brain to register negative stimuli more readily and dwell on them.

It means we are actually wired to feel the impact of criticism more acutely than praise.

It’s why the “bad things” grab our attention and stick like Velcro and the good slides off like Teflon according to Psychologist Rick Hanson. It’s a bias I have come to know intimately well.  A partner in my twenties once commented on this habit I harboured, comparing my mind to a dog with a raggedy bone.  It just won’t let go. Needless to say, it is something that I have tirelessly wrestled with.

So why do we have this negativity bias as a species and why is it that negative events have a greater impact on our brains?  The evolutionary perspective suggests that this bias towards the negative starts in infancy and plays a critical part in our survival.  So how does this ancient biological wiring in our brain actually work? Neuroscientific evidence has shown that there is greater neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli.

The negativity bias registers and highlights negative experiences in an instant and stores them in memory in order to prompt us to avoid potential future threats.

So given that it assists in our survival, what is so bad about a negativity bias? In a nutshell, it takes a toll on our mental health and contributes to unhappy states of mind. It also has a powerful effect on our behaviour, decision making and relationships. The problem in our modern world, is that we no longer live a life that presents constant threats to our survival. However our brain still operates in this way and has a tendency to register many experiences as negative.  Being stuck in traffic, running out of coffee or spilling curry on our new white dress is what triggers our threat response and activates our negativity bias.

An unchecked negativity bias can develop a tendency for us to accumulate stress,  pessimism and lead us to view life as a constant series of challenges. When we become habituated into seeing the negative side of things whilst dismissing the positive, it obscures our ability to see things objectively.  Ultimately it undermines our confidence, lowers our resilience and exacerbates depression and anxiety. It is precisely this dilemma that has many people showing up to counselling or various therapy services as the stuckness of these negative mental loops and habits take hold and lead to mental suffering.

So how do we overcome this unhelpful bias of the brain?  How can we shift towards a positivity bias instead?  In other words, how can we make the shift from simply surviving to thriving? The good news is that it is entirely possible to shift our habits of mind from being fixated on the negative to one that registers and highlights the positive.  Our brain has what researchers and neuroscientist call neuroplasticity which means we can rewire our brains.  All it takes is some awareness and some mind training.  Author Norman Doidge, MD a psychiatrist and researcher who wrote the highly acclaimed book The Brain That Changes Itself, states that “The human brain is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function”. This is exciting news for therapist and humanity in general.  It proves that we can change and that it is indeed possible to “teach an old dog new tricks”. We just need to learn how to apply these tricks.  In fact, the more conscious awareness and time we offer to training our mind to take in the good it will create a habitual shift towards happiness.

Unfortunately, positive experiences are not registered in the brain in same way mostly because they are not critical to our survival.  Researchers have found that in order for our brains to register positive experiences in our memory system, they need to be held in awareness for a greater length of time.

As Psychiatrist and popular author Dan Siegel points out in his ground breaking book Mindsight “How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain”.

Psychologist and author Rick Hanson offers a helpful and practical strategy that assist us in reshaping our brain’s neural pathways to bring balance to the negativity bias.

He uses the acronym HEAL to offer a 4 step process that assist in the rewiring towards a positivity bias and build strengths in the brain to make it more resilient and calm.

H = Have a positive experience.  It is important to intentionally seek out good experiences each day.  They can be simple things like nature, a cup of tea or a beautiful song. This important first step activates our brain and starts the process of taking in the good.

E = Enrich the experience.  Here we drink in the experience and gently intensify it. 

It is vital to stay with it for 10 – 20 seconds or longer. Resting in the good experience and notice the feelings and the sensations in the body and letting it fill the mind.

A = Absorb the experience. In this step, we set the intention to allow the experience to take it into a deeper level by literally drinking it in.  Because our brains stick more to negative experiences and allow the positive ones to slip away, we need to consciously allow the experience to sink in. This is an important step of integration where we shift the experience from short term to long term memory.

L = Link positive and negative material. This step is optional and may require some practice.  Dr Hanson advises to start the first three steps 3 to 5 times daily before progressing. This part of the process allows us to rewire a negative experience and link it with a positive experience to balance and soothe the brain.  It is based on the concept of neurons that fire together wire together.  Here, we recall something that is not so pleasant such as being stuck in a traffic jam, children fighting in the background or an unpleasant argument and link it with a positive experience.  It may be the love you feel for the person you argued with or all the kind things they have done for you.

These evidence based strategies offer an antidote to the busyness of the modern world that has us missing and dismissing the simple joyful moments in life.  It cultivates delight and leads to a greater balance and awareness. It’s a technique I apply daily in my personal practice and one of the many offerings I recommend to clients. Particularly the linking step has proven to be helpful in holding the paradox of life without sinking into the negative. Instead it creates an awareness that  allows it to be part of the experience.

I invite you to experiment with this strategy in this very moment.  What is pleasant, joyful or positive in your surrounding right now?

It may be a piece of music, nature, children playing, a delicious cup of tea. Grant yourself the time and space to deeply make contact with it, open up to it with genuine curiosity.  Enrich the experience by gently intensifying it and really drink it.  Allow it to absorb deeply into your body and memory system. If you wish, you might link it with something that is not so pleasant like the noise of traffic around you.  Congratulations, you have just rewired your brain.