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Ben Martin

About the author :

Ben Martin is a research and business development associate at Thera Rising Intenational. He also delivers seminars and oversees digital development.

Brain Bytes: The Negativity Bias

November 7, 2016   Conflict IQ, The Science

So far in Brain Bytes, we’ve covered the basics of neuroplasticity, taking in the good, and the three brains: lizard, mammal, and primate. This week, we’re going to get to the very center of neuroplasticity: the negativity bias.

The negativity bias refers to how easily the human brain turns negative experiences into neural patterns. In other words, when we have a bad experience, it stands out to us a lot more than a positive one. Say you go to a social event, like a family gathering or a class reunion. You have 20 great conversations, and then one where someone just gets under your skin. Which of those 21 conversations are you thinking about on the way home and all night and the morning after? If you’re like me, it’s the negative one.

This happens because our brains are hardwired to over-learn from the bad, and under-learn from the good. While that tendency may be inconvenient, there’s a perfectly good reason that we turned out this way. Our brains developed in a very different world than the one we live in now. On the most basic level, the brain is made to do two things: chase rewards and avoid dangers – mental “carrots” and “sticks.” In that light, it makes sense that we would tend to fixate on the bad. If a reward comes along and you miss it because you’re needlessly skeptical, it’s OK. You’ll find another reward later. If a danger comes along and you’re just a little too curious, well, there are no more carrots ever, because you just became the carrot.

The problem is that in modern daily life, the negativity bias that served us so well in the wild can drag us down. The stress it causes can take a real toll on our bodies and brains, especially if they become deeply engrained mental habits. Your brain wants you to be a little on edge, a little unsatisfied, and a little bit agitated all the time. That’s what was favored over millions of years of natural selection. Even when those drives are no longer vital, or even practical, the ancient ruts are hard to break out of.

This is why activities like taking in the good are so important – especially for people in rescue work, combat situations, and other scenarios where threat response actually is a vital part of the job. Giving our brains time to decompress and de-stress helps build resilience and wellbeing, countering the negativity bias and keeping ourselves healthier and happier. The more we do this, the more natural it becomes. While negativity bias is powerful, positive neuroplasticity offers plenty of strategies to help us overcome it.

Just remember, this is not the same as positive thinking. Positive neuroplasticity isn’t about putting a positive spin on negative events. Rather, it’s about giving the good in our lives its due attention, which can counter the subtle ways our hardwiring works against us.

Next time, we’ll discuss building and reinforcing positive mental patterns to counteract the negativity bias. So stay tuned!


Ben MartinBen Martin specializes in research and business development at Thera Rising. When he’s not out delivering seminars, he oversees client outreach and digital development.

LinkedIn: Ben Martin

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