Negativity Bias
  • May 13, 2022

Negativity Bias

Psychologists have identified approximately 150 different types of unconscious bias in human behaviour. Unconscious bias is also known as implicit bias.

implicit - suggested though not openly expressed.

bias - an inclination or prejudice for or against a person, group, event or action.

Common unconscious biases include:

1. Availability Bias

Availability bias is the impact our most vivid experiences or memories have on our decision-making.

An availability bias or 'heuristic' is a mental shortcut that relies on our tendency to use information that comes to mind quickly and easily when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or making decisions about the future.

Our availability bias tends to place too much importance on the facts and information we can easily remember, especially those formed by our confirmation biases. Availability bias places less importance on the facts not immediately available to us.

Availability bias is also likely to be the cognitive process that forms our confirmation biases.

2. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias where a person favours information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs or ideas.

A person with a confirmation bias is more likely to seek out, interpret, absorb and remember information that supports their established views; for example, a person who holds a belief that intelligence is determined by a person's skin colour or gender.

Confirmation bias makes people less likely to engage with information that inverts, challenges or contradicts their existing view.

3. Negativity Bias

Negativity bias is when we pay more attention to negative information and negative thoughts than we do to positive information and positive thoughts.

Negativity bias is a throwback to our cave-dwelling ancestors. Negative thoughts were a safety mechanism, an alertness to danger, and sometimes the difference between life death.

Psychologist, Timothy J. Bono, suggests this is because,

"We inherited the genes that predispose us to give special attention to those negative aspects of our environments that could be harmful to us..."

(Bono in Jaworski. The Negativity Bias: Why the Bad Stuff Sticks.2020.)

Memory and Bias

Negative emotions arouse the amygdalae, a pair of small almond-shaped regions deep in the brain and responsible for processing strong emotions, such as fear, pleasure, or anger.

The amygdalae are thought to form the core of a neural system for processing fearful and threatening stimuli, including detection of threat and activation of appropriate fear-related behaviours in response to threatening or dangerous stimuli.

"negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory, in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage."

(Dr Rick Hansen. Ibid)

Therefore, we're more likely to remember an insult or negative event than a compliment or happy event. For instance,

"The negativity bias is the natural inclination of the human mind to not only register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on those things. In our relationships it means that the twenty positive interactions you may have had that day with your partner can be wiped out by that one irritating thing they have done and that becomes all you can think about it."

(Jiselle Saraghi, founder of Inner Calm Counselling - Gold Coast, Queensland. )

We are also susceptible to having negative thoughts about ourselves even without a negative comment from a third party.

A negative bias about ourselves can be related to issues or doubts we are having about our body-image, weight, exercise, diet, ageing, physical or mental health, addictions, an acquired or genetic disability, social confidence or professional competence.

A negative bias can also be linked to the concept of Learned Helplessness, a behaviour exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try even when opportunities for change become available.

Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness theory was developed by American psychologists, Martin E.P. Seligman and Steven Maier, at the University of Pennsylvania during the late 1960s and '70s.

Learned helplessness theory holds the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

The theory of learned helplessness also has been applied to many conditions and behaviours, including clinical depression, ageing, domestic violence, poverty, discrimination, parenting, academic achievement, drug abuse, and alcoholism.

In 1978 Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale reformulated Seligman's work, using attribution theory. They proposed that people differed in how they classified negative experiences on three scales, from internal to external, stable to unstable and from global to specific.

Research has shown that those with an internal, stable and global attributional style for negative events can be more at risk for a depressive reaction to failure experiences (click on link for more details).

By the mid-1990s, the neuroscience tools that had become available allowed a more detailed understanding of how the brain produces behavioural consequences.

Most behaviours and emotions are not mediated by a particular structure but rather by a circuit, including the neural circuitry that regulates fight/flight and fear/anxiety responses.

The good news is that the brain is not hardwired and is malleable and capable of change.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy can be used to reveal to people that their actions do make a difference and can bolster their self-esteem.

Cognitive therapy is based on the cognitive model, which states that thoughts, feelings and behaviour are all connected and that individuals can move toward overcoming difficulties and meeting their goals by identifying and changing negative, unhelpful or inaccurate thinking, problematic behaviour and distressing emotional responses.

We can counter our negative biases by practicing some simple steps:

  •   Slow down our thoughts
  •   Interrupt our usual and often unconscious routines
  •   Make a mindful effort to learn, grow and change
  •   Take the time to connect to people through deep listening

Mindfulness and Deep Listening

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing more awareness to our everyday activities including our thoughts, emotions, sensations and environment.

Active Listening was a popular term and practice during the 1990s, but this practice requires the listener to paraphrase the speaker. Paraphrasing others' words in our own language brings with it our own assumptions and biases that we are not conscious of... we need to listen beyond the words as 'deep listeners'.

  •   Active Listeners help make sense of what the speaker is saying.
  •   Deep Listeners help the speaker make sense of what they are saying.

Deep Listeners are in the present with a willingness to have their minds changed. Deep listeners also listen to content; listen for context; listen for the unsaid; and listen for meaning.

The Gratitude Switch

During counselling sessions, in addition to conducting mindfulness and meditation exercises, Imago Relationship Therapist, Jiselle Saraghi, also encourages her clients to a keep a 'gratitude journal':

"Scientific studies have indicated that gratitude switches something on in our brains and by simply finding three things in our day we are grateful for, our brain switches to a new mode and begins to find more and more that we can be grateful for. Benefits include the fact that this alters our mood and we experience a greater sense of well-being."

Saraghi concludes,

"It works exactly the same way in our relationships. Finding things we appreciate about each other can open the flood gates to finding more and more qualities and behaviours that we had become blind to while locked in the negativity bias."

Overcoming Negativity Bias

Related Article: Happiness – Why Should We Believe Hilda?

Sources and References

Jaworski, Margaret. The Negativity Bias: Why the Bad Stuff Sticks-What is the negativity bias? How can you overcome it? PSYCOM. (updated 19 Feb. 2020)

Gration, Dr Steven. What is Availability Bias? March 2021

Gration, Dr Steven. Deep Listening. October 2020.

Gration, Dr Steven. Learned Helplessness - Part 1. March 2021.

Gration, Dr Steven. Learned Helplessness - Part 2. April 2021.

Gration, Dr Steven. Happiness – Why Should We Believe Hilda?

Saraghi, Jiselle. Inner Calm Counselling - Gold Coast, Queensland. (accessed 12 March 2022)

Saraghi, Jiselle. Overcoming Negativity Bias.

Stone, Janet. Power of the Unconscious Mind. Phil to provide magazine/publisher name and date published.

Researched, compiled, composed, written and edited by Dr Steve Gration. Feb 2022.


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