Overcome Negativity Bias

Overcome Negativity Bias

My daughter Maddy has often reminded me of the time I was late for her pre-school dance recital. Admittedly I should have left home sooner and I should have factored in that the car park would be full. But I didn’t. By the time I parked two blocks away, unbuckled my two younger sons (one and two at the time) from their car seats and sprinted – one on my hip, one towed through the air – to her classroom, the dance routine had started. I was four minutes late but, oh, how I have paid for those four minutes – a thousand times over – by my daughter who thought her mother was the only one who didn’t care enough to show up.

That was fourteen years ago and she still talks about it, so when she does, I ask her to think of all the times I wasn’t late. She can’t remember any. Not because I’m always late but because our brains are wired to dwell on the times when things have not gone to plan, not on the countless times they did.

This little story is just one example of ‘negativity bias’. That is, our tendency to focus more on the negatives than the positives – in ourselves, in others (particularly our parents!), in our circumstances; in the past, in the present and when forecasting the future.

You’ve experienced it if you’ve ever dwelt on:

  • The one thing you forgot to say in a meeting versus all that you remembered.
  • The one big of piece of critical feedback you received versus the many positive ones.
  • The one time someone let you down versus the many they didn’t.
  • The one bargain you missed over the many you got.
  • The one thing your partner did wrong or forgot over the many things they did right or remembered.
  • All that could go wrong if you take a chance over all that could go right.

It’s why social scientists have found that it takes five compliments to make up for one criticism (though I reckon it’s closer to 25!)

We are Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. As such, we tend to overlearn from negative experiences, using them as evidence to cement the stories we tell ourselves that hurt our relationships, limit our ambitions, justify our excuses and siphon the joy from our days.

Yet all is not lost. Just because our brains are hardwired to look for the negative – a throwback from our cave-dwelling days – their innate neuro-plasticity also makes it possible to rewire our brains toward what is good or positive and away from what is perceived as missing or wrong.

Shawn Achor author of The Happiness Advantage wrote that, “We can retrain the brain to scan for the good things in life — to help us see more possibility, to feel more energy, and to succeed at higher levels.” While there are lots of ways we can do this, here’s my top five.

Notice what you’re noticing

Firstly, pay attention to what you are paying attention to. Or to put it more simply, cultivate mindfulness. Since our brains are hardwired to focus on anything that we could potentially lose — from our physical safety and security, to our pride and peer group acceptance — we must deliberately focus our attention on those things that are present in our lives. So just take a deep breath right now, notice how it feels in your body. Take a look around your room, and notice what you see. Then notice how it makes you feel. Remember, you don’t see the world as it is, but as you are. So start noticing how it is that you’re noticing things.

Celebrate small wins

Studies show that small wins boost our sense of competence, enhance our creativity and have enormous influence disproportionate to the accomplishments or the victories themselves.

Taking time to celebrate the small wins and mark the small milestones places emotional deposits into our psychological bank account that we can withdraw from when we are confronted with loss and disappointment. Too often in our race through each day we don’t take the time to celebrate the small wins – the application submitted, the article written, the first time your child rode their bike without training wheels, even the first sale in your new business.

Acknowledge the good in others

Most people are better at naming their weaknesses than their strengths. We all have a tendency to dwell on our shortcomings and wrestle with a sense of inadequacy. Each time you acknowledge the strengths, talents, positive choices and innate goodness in those around you, you not only elevate them, you elevate yourself. Sure there may be many things they are doing that you don’t like, but look for what you do. Focus on that. Catch them doing something right. Share your belief in them. Recall the times they’ve made you feel loved and made you laugh. Appreciate their effort. Write them a card. Celebrate their progress. Emotions are contagious – we cannot lift another without also lifting ourselves.

Practice self-compassion

I can easily spot someone who excels in beating themselves up because I’m so good at it myself! Yet, as I shared in my last blog post, I’ve gradually come to appreciate that the best ‘self-help’ must always begin with self-compassion – with giving ourselves the kindness, patience, acceptance and gentleness that we would show to those we love most. By doing so we expand our capacity for connection with those around us.

Cultivate gratitude

My friend Mona has four children of a similar age to my own four. For nearly ten years she has fought stage four breast cancer which has now spread in her body. Yet each time I speak to Mona she disarms me with her deep gratitude for simply being alive and being able to witness her children grow into young adults. I am always left profoundly touched and grateful by her example. Gratitude is a tonic for happiness, not just in hard times, but in all times. Numerous studies have shown the emotional, mental and physical benefits of gratitude including one by Philip Watkins from Eastern Washington University which found depression to be inversely correlated to gratitude. That is, the more grateful we are, the less likely we’ll fall into depression.

The truth is that life offers a constant stream of challenges that collide with our hopes, plans and expectations. But beneath that stream runs a deeper current of blessings that can easily be taken for granted. Gratitude takes nothing for granted. It shines a spotlight on all that is good, amplifying its presence, all while putting ‘problems’ into perspective so we can respond more constructively, less resentfully.

So practice gratitude not just in good times; but at all times. It is an antidote to life’s hardships and a magnifier of its blessings.