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Our Brain’s “Negativity Bias”

Tuesday March 24, 2015
Our Brain’s  “Negativity Bias”

Negativity is an addiction to the bleak shadow that lingers around every human form ... you can transfigure negativity by turning it toward the light of your soul.

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Quality of life, general wellbeing, is an ongoing concern for us. We want a daily existence characterized by positive emotions. We try in earnest to rest our minds on what is calming and edifying, states of mind such as trust, hope, optimism, gratitude, serenity, compassion or joy.  

Yet we often find our mind resists this effort. It prefers to rest on what is disquieting, repeatedly warning us to mistrust and be vigilant because the world is not a safe place. It abounds with losses, and dangers.

So we scan people and situations looking for signs of threat. And when we find them, whether real or imagined, our alarm system immediately goes off, compelling us to take some form of action, namely flee, freeze, or get ready to attack or defend.

According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson*, this phenomenon is omnipresent and is known as the “brain’s negativity bias.” It is part of our evolutionary inheritance. It is a neural pathway that evolved to increase our chances of survival, which in the calculus of evolution, is the superordinate goal. To that end, it is more adaptive to be on edge, hyper-alert and in a state of anticipation. The faster we scan and detect what is or could go wrong the better our chances of staying alive. This concern trumps all others, be it the quest for serenity, gratitude, resilience, comfort, positivity or even the accuracy of the assumed threats themselves.

In fact, it is infinitely more adaptive to have a brain that jumps the gun, and goes into alert mode naming a threat that turns out to be false than it is to remain silent when the threat is actually there. The brain, Rick Hanson likes to say, “is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

This “bias” served us well in earlier times, when nature and the wild overpowered us. The world of today is different. For better or worse. The cave, some diseases and the sabre tooth tiger are gone. The wild recedes to domesticity.  The rogue now reckons with moral precepts and commandments. The language of threat and danger is now the language of risk and cost-benefit analysis. The world may not be completely safe but it is safer than it used to be.

More and more of us survive and aim beyond survival. We want contentment. We want to pursue opportunities--which calls for taking risks. We want to build, broaden our horizons, our future.  

Certainly, our antiquated alarm system needs a tune up. The alarm needs not go off so frequently or indiscriminately.

Besides, hyper-responsiveness to the negative can be costly to our health and wellbeing. When we choose hyper-alertness and a proclivity to predict negative outcomes, we select agitation and forgo relaxation.  We open the door to pessimism and stress related disorders.

But so far, it appears as if the negativity bias is so formidable that it is destiny. Not so, says Hanson. The good news is that it can be counteracted or diminished thanks to another feature of the brain, “experience-based neuroplasticity.” The brain does not stop learning. Just as the brain can structure the mind, the mind can shape the brain.  New neural pathways can be established when we direct our intention and attention away from negativity and in other desired directions, like towards positivity, and when we  pursue the project in a disciplined, sustained and focused manner. More good news – change can occur in months rather than millennia.

Research from psychologist Barbara Fredrickson** and colleagues indicate immersion in positive emotions is also adaptive. It is advantageous personally as well as socio-culturally. Positivity promotes energy and vigor, counteracts depression and anxiety, increases overall resilience, and fosters creativity and deeper connections with others.   This is a quantum leap from the “negativity bias,” which is focused on attack and defense. In her words, “Positive emotions broaden [our] scope of attention, cognition and action, and build physical, intellectual and social resources.”

How do we tilt towards positivity? According to Hanson, if we are interested in its beneficial effects, a good starting place is to begin noticing how and when we attend to the negative and ignore the positive elements in our everyday life. We cannot change what we do not notice.  Having become mindful of them, the next major strategy for Hanson is to “install” them in our behavioral repertoire by taking in what is good and positive. And with those elements we begin to build a new neural pathway—one leading to calm, confidence and contentment.

The method is simple, doable and effective. It will be the theme of my April post. 

*Hanson, Rick. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York: Harmony Books, 2013.

**Fredrickson, Barbara. Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.

Julio F. Angulo, PhDJulio F. Angulo, PhD
NWPF Blogger

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