Thursday, May 13, 2010

Overcoming the negativity trap

I've been reading a fascinating novel called "Generosity: An Enhancement". It's about a woman ostensibly afflicted with hyperthymia — an excess of happiness. The book poses the question: What if there were a happiness gene and it could, through genetic engineering, lead to treatments that make us all forever positive and filled with an abiding happiness?

It's superbly written and provides a deep social satire of the issues of temperament, social acceptance, human generosity and the scientific commercialization of our genome.

Halfway through the book, one of the characters describes a thought experiment on loss aversion:
"Imagine you are in a deserted parking lot and a twenty dollar bill blows right in front of you. There's no one in sight you can return it to." "How do you feel?"

"Now imagine some time later, you are in a store. You approach the cash register with a purchase, reach inside your pocket for the twenty, and find it's missing. You accidentally threw it away when disposing of some crumpled tissues." "How do you feel now?"
The character Russell feels the difference.
"The freebie was fun; the lost panics him... The bad is crazily out of proportion to the good, and it's the same twenty bucks."

Our brain bias towards negativity

Unfortunately, we have a Brain bias towards negativity. Wikipedia describes it as: "A psychological phenomenon by which humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences or other kinds of information."

This negativity bias shows up in many aspects of our society and our lives.

I've blogged before about how we have more negative words than positive words in the English vocabulary and therefore in our ability to make distinctions and discriminations in our world. It's easier to express yourself negatively than positively.

Negative things are more attention-getting than good or positive things. They affect the Reticular Activating System more strongly. That's why the News is filled with FUDGE (Fear, Uncertainty, Disaster, Greed & Envy). You rarely see news or movies based on positivity, love, kindness and joy. Happiness does NOT make interesting news.

Research on negativity bias has also shown that:
  • If a person has a good experience and a bad experience close together, they will feel worse than neutral. This is true even if they would independently judge the two experiences to be of similar magnitude.
  • Negative information in the simple form of negation has greater impact and creates more attention than similar positive information in the form of affirmation.
  • When put in an environment with a variety of information to pay attention to, people will immediately notice the threats instead of the opportunities or the signals of safety.
  • Negativity is 'sticky' - our minds naturally and quite spontaneously tend to fixate on the negative and overlook the positive, especially when under stress.
  • Loss aversion is a related process to negativity bias and involves the innate tendency to be more impacted by the negative experience of loss than by the positive experience of gain - we fear loss more than we appreciate gain.
An evolved predisposition

You see, the brain has evolved with a greater sensitivity to negative, threatening or unpleasant news. The bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain's information processing. As an example, studies done by Dr. John Cacioppo at Ohio State University, showed people pictures known to arouse positive feelings (a Ferrari, or a pizza), negative feelings (a mutilated face or dead cat) and those known to produce neutral feelings (a plate, a hair dryer). During this process, researchers recorded electrical activity in the brain's cerebral cortex indicating the magnitude of information processing taking place. The results showed definitively that the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge and spread in electrical activity throughout the brain. In this way our attitudes are more heavily influenced by bad news than good.

Need to track for and overcome the negativity trap

Knowing that your brain has a bias towards negativity puts you back in control. You have a choice. Millions of years of evolution may have wired in a predisposition towards negativity, but learning and behaviour can change the structure and wiring of your cortex. You can learn new responses. You can build unconscious competencies that change your evolved patterns. You can overcome the negativity trap!

Pattern interrupt and focus on positivity

The key to overcoming the negativity bias is in the following steps:

Knowledge >> Awareness >> Pattern interrupt negativity >> Replace with positivity

Through repeated practice of this strategy you will build new parts in your multi-mind and can overcome and transcend negativity bias. Using this process, you will have stepped out of the trap and created patterns that continue to enhance your life.

Amplifying the positive

You'll notice that over the course of the last year this blog has introduced you to many, many tools for focusing on and amplifying positivity in your life, behaviour and mind. We've explored the power of positive words. We've encouraged skills and a passion for delight, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, savoring positivity, gratitude and appreciation, amongst others. All life enhancing skills. You might like to revisit some of those blog posts to refresh your mind about them.

Start today to notice whenever you are celebrating or amplifying the negative and immediately replace that emoting with a more positive, optimistic and fun loving attitude.

Positivity is life enhancing. Build it as a key focus into every day, all your relationships and every life enhancing moment.

great wishes,

Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive

Daily Dose of Positivity: Mental Supplements for Better Health

The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want


  1. Yes, the "stickiness" of negativity makes it a constant battle. I've known one or two people who seem to be natural-born optimists. The rest of us must choose optimism every day.

  2. Hi Jean, you are so right. I like to denominalize the nouns of negativity and positivity to their verb forms (or verb'afied forms) so that I focus on and realise that positivity and negativity are processes and therefore skills. Our brains have natural inbuilt predisposings towards the latter skill of negativity'ing, but through daily focus and practice, we can increase our ability and competence in the skills of positivity'ing and optimism'ing (optimising perhaps).

    smiles, Grant

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