Have you ever noticed that no matter how positive an experience it’s often clouded by that one niggling thing you wish hadn’t happened? The stumbling of words in a speech, that moment when you tripped over nothing or the time you gracefully poured orange juice all over yourself and tried to style it out. Focusing on the negative aspects of past experiences instead of the positive can easily sap our self-confidence.
And it’s not even our fault.
This is the negativity effect or negative bias at work. The bad things that happen to us linger for a reason including the stupid things we’ve said or done.
What is negativity bias?
Negativity bias is an effect of evolution that has us focusing on the worst-case scenario. It’s all about learning from experience. It’s true we learn from both bad and good experiences but the bad ones have a lot more to do with our survival. For instance, we may have good memories of swimming in the sea, but then remember being pulled down by an undertow. Now, this doesn’t mean it’ll happen every time we go swimming, but those negative emotions serve as a warning to be careful.
We can thank our prehistoric ancestors for paying such close attention to negative bias. It’s why we’re here to complain about it after all.
Ancient cave paintings depict the things that were important in palaeolithic humans’ lives in all their danger and glory. Hunting was at the top of the list. Now, we know if those hunts were unsuccessful they wouldn’t have starved- the lion’s share of our ancestors’ diet was actually plant-based– but looking out for those big dangers was literally engraved on their walls.
The negativity effect protects us from the unknown. And since the kind of action that requires self-confidence is often an unknown quantity, negative bias kicks in hard to protect us.
On the one hand, we stay safe. On the other, we don’t achieve anything.
And while we dither trying to decide what to do for the best, we can end up stressed, worried and lacking self-confidence. The ability to make decisions goes right out the window.
The negativity effect is normal. That said, we shouldn’t ignore it completely, even though we may no longer need to rely on it for survival.
The Negativity effect isn’t always bad
It’s OK to be a bit negative.
In fact, it’s healthy. Trying to be positive all the time and suppressing unlying negative emotions will make you miserable. Acknowledging the good and the bad helps us find balance. Especially when trying to achieve our goals.
Listening to our negativity bias can be a useful tool. How often have we felt better knowing what we were getting ourselves into no matter the potential outcome? There is a satisfaction in making a choice, eyes wide open. The old adage, ‘Expect the worst- hope for the best’ isn’t just negative bias it’s an act of mental preparation. But the key is in the balance between the expectation and the hope.
Most of the time though, we’re expected to feel positive no matter what.
False positivity is worse than negative bias
Unfortunately for those of us sensitive to the Negativity effect, life is made all the harder by a culture obsessed with positivity. When striving for our dreams-which is also an absolute requirement of modern living-we must aim high. Be confident. ‘Fall among the stars.’ All the while suppressing the expectation of our worst thoughts and fears.
In an article for the Scientific American, psychotherapist, Tori Rodriguez explains why this is a problem. Those with a stronger awareness of their negativity bias, experience feelings of shame on top of everything else because they can’t be upbeat all the time. Rodriguez encourages her clients to “Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your emotional state”. This is so they can learn to tolerate strong emotions and accept them. “I often tell my clients that a thought is just a thought and a feeling just a feeling, nothing more”. Good advice.
Sometimes a bad feeling is just that. When making decisions, our past negative experiences will always outweigh our positive ones. The trick is recognising the difference between the natural effect of negative bias on the brain and when a negative emotion is a red flag.
For instance, it would be foolish to ignore our body’s little warnings about our health when it could be something serious.
Just as it was for Palaeolithic people, the negativity effect is part of our survival story. Only with fewer stampeding bison.
That said, positivity isn’t always misplaced confidence. A degree of optimism can help us achieve incredible things.
For instance, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before getting published. That certainly wouldn’t have been possible without a healthy dose of self-confidence despite the sting of repeated negative feedback suggesting it was everything from too long to too exclusive. But what if she hadn’t been sure of herself? What if she’d let a negative bias chip away at her confidence in her own gifts and talents?
Negative bias and low self-confidence
Let’s be clear, negative bias does not automatically mean low self-confidence. Some simply consider themselves more pragmatic or logical. Realists.
But if we do lack self-confidence, the negativity effect can absolutely dominate our mindset.
If we let it take over, negativity will have us thinking our life goals are stupid and will probably kill us. We become micro-focused on every flaw when we try anything new and it gets compounded by further confidence-sapping criticism from others. Even if it’s constructive or a slightly clumsy compliment. These are the worst if you’re already in a negative place. Does pretty good mean that it’s good? or that it could be better?
These negative emotions become a problem when the situation comes up again. Like a big brick wall, our flaws stand in front of us. We become so aware of them that we’re doomed to repeat them. We’re too busy holding ourselves to a much higher standard than everyone else.
Tips to put negative bias in perspective where it belongs
Get ready for some introspection.
I know journaling isn’t for everybody. It can lead to pages and pages of the negativity effect in action but if you can get those thoughts out of your head and stop them affecting the rest of your day then it’s worth it.
As any performer can testify, deep breathing from the diaphragm can work wonders. Just stopping for a minute or two and taking a deep breath is enough to increase calm and focus. It also has a whole host of other health benefits.
Celebrate the small wins
Self-examination is a helpful way to move beyond negative emotions and regain self-confidence.
Ask yourself to remember what you’re good at or the last time you achieved something no matter how small. If you find yourself unable to come up with something or you start to think of your achievements as having little value I’d ask you this: Who are you comparing yourself to? what did it mean to you at the time? We forget so many of the things that have made us into the people we are.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the small wins either. And if you’re proud of something, if it mattered to you, then go ahead and own it with pride.
As far as negative bias goes, we can all start by weeding out the real constructive criticism from the imagined. It’s up to us to decide how to interpret it. And that pretty good compliment we got earlier? well. We can also decide it means good.
How about you? How do you deal with negative bias?
This post may contain affiliate links.