Negativity bias is the “propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.” Think of a time when someone paid you a compliment, now think of a moment when someone criticized you. Both will have an effect on you, but which one will linger longer? If the criticism stays with you longer, you’re not alone.
Negativity Bias in Daily Life
Not only do we let negative instances linger, but when recalling the past, we talk more about negative events, and we also remember them in more detail than positive ones.
Focusing on the negative also translates to when we decide to write a review (i.e. Yelp). A negative experience is more likely to prompt us to write a review and we are more curious to know about what could go wrong when assessing reviews.
A consumer is 21% more likely to leave a review after a negative experience than a positive one.Review Trackers
On Taking Risks
When it comes to taking risks, a potential loss has a larger psychological impact than a potential gain, even if the loss/gain is of equal value. This means that the thought of losing $10 has a larger impact than the thought of winning $10.
Losses generally have a much larger psychological impact than gains of the same size.Scientific American
Neurological and psychological experiments both affirm negativity bias. We know that “negative stimuli receives greater neural processing than positive ones”, when measuring brain circuitry. Losses also result in greater activity in brain regions that control emotions, the insula and amygdala. Hence, “negative stimuli are generally rated as emotionally more intense than positive stimuli“.
Triggering Negativity Bias
Researchers have been studying negativity bias for decades and it’s not a surprise that it’s a psychological trait applied strategically.
People pay more attention to negative ads. Especially in a democracy that requires the public to go out of their way and vote, negativity motivates voters. Negative emotions are also more contagious than positive ones, which means that they are better at uniting us against an “enemy”.
In American politics, animosity towards the other party is the primary motivator for voting. More than ever, Americans have an unfavorable view of the oppossing party, from being close-minded to being downright immoral.
Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty.New York Times
During elections, we’ll hear about poverty, why we are poor, and how candidates will champion those struggling financially. You might come across arguments that people are poor because some people are too rich. This is another way to trigger a negative emotion. Poverty exists, but it’s a complicated social problem, and a one-track blame strategy is a way to use negative emotions to create an enemy through simplification.
It Gets Us Talking
Defining an enemy goes beyond politics. We have seen it used in the “war against meat-eaters” with the rise of veganism. The story is not just about not eating meat, but the narrative has to be told in the context of outrage and divisiveness. In this context, it gets the meat-eaters talking because they are meant to feel slighted.
Another way to get us talking, assuming, and gossiping is to create feuds between popular people: Meghan vs. Kate, Gates vs. Musk. Negativity bias compels us to choose a side.
In a YouTube interview with Marques Brownlee, an insightful conversation about Bill Gates’ view on the environment and climate change, gets condensed to how Bill Gates did not buy a Tesla for his first electric car and Elon Musk’s Twitter response.
It’s inevitable that interviews and events will get dissected and talked about in many ways, and the challenge for consumers of information is to resist the negativity bias and figure out what is substantial and meaningful information. What’s more important to you, that Bill Gates didn’t buy a Tesla or his views on how to get to 0 emissions?
We are more likely to click on negatively framed headlines, with words and phrases such as “crisis”, “war”, “what you’re missing”, or “slammed for”.
It’s probably not a coincidence that hatred, mistrust, and loathing towards other people who we think do not share the same worldview as us has reached an all time high. Instead of talking about issues, we end up simplifying the debate and focus on gossip and conjectures.
Getting attention through negative bias is not limited to organizations for revenue. Similar to the propensity to write more negative reviews, the collective negative comments on social media can be as powerful.
Our Two Cents and Easy Commenting
Making sense of celebrity Caroline Flack’s suicide, it’s not only the media that is getting scrutiny, but people who post comments:
‘People say you have to expect that kind of scrutiny because you work in television. Really? Why? Who says so?’ Flack wrote in her 2015 autobiography. ‘Perhaps the worst was Twitter,’ she wrote. ‘However vile they are, newspapers have to be careful because of libel and privacy. But Twitter is different. nobody censors that.’CNN
Negativity bias tells us that we are more prone to dwell on the negative, and this comes from both sides–those who write words that are meant to belittle someone, and the person the words are directed at. We have control over what we utter and also what we consume.
The point is not to be ignorant, but to understand human biases, so we can best navigate our world more sanely and calmly. There are facts of life that are hard: death, loss, pain, sickness, bullying, heartbreak…but there are also good things. We just might not hear about them as much, or remember them as often, but they exist. In fact, social media accounts such as @globalpositivenews highlight informative news that remind us that the world is not crumbling to its knees.
As part of mental-care, try taking the time to remember positive events in your life, your neighborhood, the world. After reading this article, you know that your brain is somehow drawn to the negative–counter this tendency. If you keep a journal, pay attention to the positive stories you write. If you’re chatting with friends, remind yourself to talk about events that restore faith in humanity.
And if you find yourself reading news or stories that are meant to stir anger for a person or group of people, without a rational solution, pause and think about what emotional reaction these words are meant to trigger. Is this content worth your time?
The More You Know: Theories on Why Our Brains Are Drawn to the Negative
Evolutionary theorists argue that we are hard-wired to pay more attention to the negative than the positive as a part of an evolutionary mechanism. Bad news signals danger, and by focusing on the negative, we can better protect ourselves. On the other hand, positive information signals that we stay the course, and not necessarily act on it.
Range-frequency hypothesis argues that humans start off as focusing on the positive, but as a result of the predominantly positive experiences in early life, we start focusing on what is unexpected or the negative. In other words, socialization leads to our propensity to focus on the negative.