Confronting Our Negativity Bias

Recently I made a post on LinkedIn that sparked a lot of conversation – and serious debate. Many people took me up on the content of the post. But I was just referencing a known fact from science, and in fact quoting Dr Paige Williams’ book AntiFragile Leadership – because I thought it was a particularly interesting concept.

The post was about Negativity Bias – when our brains look for the negative in a situation more readily than the positive. I think we can all reflect on times where we find ourselves doing this – worrying about what might go wrong for much longer periods than we spend getting excited about the things that might go right. It might only be in certain areas of your life – areas you feel may not be secure – and there are real and powerful reasons for this.

What Dr Williams suggests in her book though is that this is natural – it is something left over from a time where human’s survival depended upon our capacity to be on the lookout for predators (our caveman ancestors!). This short video explains it:

And while she suggests it is natural, she also suggests in the modern world where a sabre-toothed tiger isn’t lurking around the corner, we can reprogram this ancient safety device to embrace a more resilient and open view of challenge. This is in fact, the whole concept of her book.

In acknowledging that part of our initial survival instinct depended upon negativity bias, we can actually begin to take charge of our thinking. We can see we have evolved in so many ways beyond that – we don’t actually need to think in this way at all any more. In fact, doing so reduces our sense of wellbeing and contributes to depression. We need to more actively combat this.

Dr Williams suggests we should challenge this negativity bias when we recognize it. Instead of reacting with purely the emotions of fear and panic and worry – use our brains to consciously question the situation. She suggests something as simple as asking ourselves the question – What is Working Well Here?

Fear may be a powerful motivator for that old reptilian brain – but it is not the most useful one in the modern world. Indeed Dr Williams reassures us that we are very much motivated nowadays by the desire to learn, grow, achieve, create and make things better. But sometimes when we feel fear, we need to coach ourselves into this mindset.

She also suggests the setting of goals helps combat this kind of thinking. Once we set a goal – our brains begin to pay more attention to things that will help us achieve our goal. This filters out a lot of negatives!

This video gives you some more suggestions:

It’s a fascinating subject and one we will continue to explore on The Wellbeing Hive.

In the meantime, you might like to focus on your strengths as a way to combat negativity bias – and the first article in our recent series on Character Strengths may be a great place to start.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels