Why Your Brain Has a “Negativity Bias”
August 2, 2021
As human beings, we’re all hard-wired to think negative thoughts. That’s thanks to what psychologists refer to as our “negativity bias”—our brains are more likely to remember and dwell on negative thoughts rather than positive ones. This negativity bias was actually an evolutionary advantage. It helped our ancestors survive by helping them avoid danger.
Today, though, our negativity bias can get in the way of our happiness. It can lead us to create a reality in our minds that things are worse for us than they really are. It can lead to anxious racing thoughts and needless stress. Some people are prone to more negative thinking—or pessimism—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem is when we “start to focus and home in on negative emotions,” says psychologist Stephanie Rodriguez, Ph.D. “A lot of people can ruminate for days before they catch themselves.”
The good news? With practice, you can learn to dispel negative thoughts, and in turn, feel much happier. The idea is that by noticing these thoughts and how they affect you, and investigating them, you can get a much clearer (and likely, cheerier) view on things. Ahead, four strategies psychologists recommend.
Life is full of ups and downs. Sometimes bad things happen, and it’s okay to feel sad or frustrated or worried. What you want to do, though, is make sure your mindset isn’t making things worse than needed. When you pinpoint a negative thought, ask yourself: What is the evidence for this? You’ll probably find evidence to support it. That’s fine. But force yourself to look for evidence of a positive outcome. Write out each piece of evidence separately, and make it specific. This can help you see that negative and positive outcomes are oftentimes equally likely. Knowing this can help you get through a worrying or rough situation.
Another tactic for combating negative thought patterns: shift your perspective. Ask yourself: Is there another way to view the situation? You may be convinced that your perspective is the only correct one. Humor yourself and come up with as many alternate interpretations as you can. Still stumped? Put yourself in your best friend’s shoes—or another impartial observer’s—and ask yourself how they might see it, then use evidence to back up their truth. Remember, there’s no one explanation for anything. The world is complex, and most problems have many causes.
As human beings, we’re great at asking “What if?” That’s where the survival advantage of the negativity bias really comes into play: If we weren’t so good at foreseeing problems and trying to solve them, we wouldn’t survive. When we sense danger, it’s very easy for us to go down the “what if” rabbit hole: “What if my boss saying my presentation needs work actually means I’m going to be fired? What if I can’t find another job? What if I have to move back in with my parents?” The next time you ask yourself the dreaded what-if question, follow it up with these five Q’s:
- What is the absolute worst possible thing that could happen?
- How likely is it?
- If it were to happen, how could I make it better?
- What is the best possible thing that could happen?
- What is the most likely outcome?
Write out your answers. This can help you slow down your mind, and ground yourself until your worry has passed.
Develop a plan of attack.
Once you’ve determined the worst, best, and most likely outcomes, it’s time to make a plan. Put most of your effort into planning for the likeliest scenario—but don’t neglect the other two. Is there anything you can do to bring about the best scenario? Is there anything you can do to improve the worst situation if it does happen? Could you prevent it from happening again? Taking action against your worries is one of the best things you can do. Focus on the aspects you can control, and try your best to let yourself off the hook for things you can’t.
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