top of page

#2: Beware Your Negativity Bias! 🧠⚠️



Our brains are velcro for the bad and teflon for the good.

~ Dr. Rick Hanson, Psychologist


 

If there were such a thing as an operating manual for the human mind it would contain a disclaimer, warning the owner:



⚠️ Beware Your Negativity Bias! ⚠️ Negative experiences may appear larger in your perception than they actually are.



The negativity bias is the brain's tendency to focus more on negative experiences than positive ones.


This bias was a critical survival mechanism for our ancestors, because it helped them navigate treacherous environments where quick recognition of danger meant the difference between life and death. It was far more important for them to scan the environment for predators than it was to stop and smell the flowers or appreciate a sunset.



Over hundreds of thousands of years, this bias was firmly wired into our brains. And while it is still useful in some situations today, when it is left unchecked, it can effectively sabotage our efforts to find happiness and wellbeing.


Here's an example:


You’re on vacation and just checked into a nice hotel for the evening. When you enter the room, there’s a large spider on the bed. Which do you think will be a more vivid memory: the fine furnishings and luxury appointments of the room, or the spider you encountered?


Personally, I see my negativity bias show up a lot when I'm presenting mindfulness and stress reduction strategies in the workplace. Organizations often send out feedback forms, and thankfully the majority of folks give 5/5 stars. But there's almost always a 1/5 star review submitted. At the end of the day, which bit of feedback am I thinking about when I lay my head down at night? YUP. It's the outlier – bouncing around my mind like a deranged sheep. Perhaps you can relate.


Think back to your experience navigating the 8-week MBSR journey, and you'll almost certainly recognize the negativity bias at play. For example – when you were learning to focus your attention in meditation, you probably defaulted to negative judgments when your attention wandered from the intended target. Over and over again, you were reminded that mind-wandering is normal, it's part of the process, and to respond with friendliness rather than criticism. And yet, it took time (and lots of practice) to rewire your automatic reaction. You're most likely still rewiring. Most of us tend to fixate on the negative (deviation from the focal point) rather than the positive (the act of bringing attention back which strengthens concentration).


One of the powerful insights that many people report is just how often this bias is running the show in every domain of life, not just meditation practice. In fact, just last week, an MBSR grad and Pause Community member commented in class, "I think I'm addicted to negative thinking." It would seem we're all a bit addicted to negative thoughts – by evolutionary design!




The other equally important insight is the recognition that we can train the mind to catch and release this bias. This does not mean eradicating the bias or getting rid of ALL negative thoughts. It also doesn't mean suppressing the negative and clinging to a rose-colored-glasses perspective (queue the Lego movie song, "EVERYTHING IS AWESOOOOOME!!!" 😃🥴). Instead, we are using mindful awareness to see and acknowledge negative thoughts and feelings to create enough space so that they don't automatically dictate our actions or outlook.


In doing so, we keep negativity in check while also making a little more room for the positive stuff. Working mindfully with our negativity bias is at the heart of the notion, "happiness is an inside job."




This process can have a revolutionary impact on your happiness and overall wellbeing (negativity saps a lot of energy).


Here's an interesting question for you to mindfully investigate this week: 


Are most of the experiences in your day negative, positive, or neutral?


All my best,

Ryan


bottom of page