Our brains are highly attuned to recognize threats and tend to focus on negative things. It’s an automatic reaction that researchers believe can happen before we have any real awareness that we’re doing it. Unfortunately, although we can’t always avoid negativity bias — discovered by psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward B. Royzman — we’re always left to manage its effects.
Even the most positive person experiences negativity bias – it’s natural. However, it can stop us from reaching our fullest potential or being happy with success when we experience it. Combating bias or, at the very least, managing it can allow you to reap the rewards of this bias without letting it take over. Left unchecked, it can negatively impact your decision-making, hurt your relationships with others, and darken your perception of the world.
1. Set aside negative self-talk and start to reframe.
It’s easy to let your own thoughts wash over you without giving them much thought. Just like we discussed in our most recent blog about changing your narrative, it’s time to practice metacognition. Start by paying attention to the way you talk to yourself about yourself and others. Reflect often (several times per day) on the way you label your performance and surroundings. Each time you find yourself leaning into negativity, actively change the direction of your thoughts to consider the positive... even if it feels forced at first.
Instead of framing any given situation as doomed or as a failure, try giving equal weight to both the good and bad. Managing your negativity bias doesn’t call for you to ignore the bad – that’s a survival instinct we want to keep because sometimes you need to pay attention and make a change. However, we want to keep it in check. So, after you process and set aside negative thoughts that aren’t serving you, invite the positive ones in. Be kind to yourself, even when it’s difficult.
2. Establish new (more helpful) patterns.
Even after you’ve reprocessed negative self-talk, you may still find your thoughts lingering on the bad stuff. Here’s where establishing new thought patterns can help. If negativity starts to creep up, try listening to a playlist that makes you feel happy or empowered, or go for a walk — anything incorporating nature is great! Maybe take a break to read a book you know you’ll get lost in, or call a friend who lifts you up and makes you laugh. Again, I don’t claim any of this is easy. We’re wired for negativity bias, and managing it is hard work, but if you keep trying again and again (even if you fail the first few times), it will get easier and you will discover the strategies that work for you.
3. Appreciate the good stuff intently.
Since our brains hold onto negativity more readily, we must put extra effort into appreciating the positive moments. Replay them in your mind several times and take a beat to acknowledge them intently. If you do this, there is a better chance that the positive thoughts and memories will be stored in your long-term memory. And really, that’s the goal — filling up your memory bank with at least as many positive thoughts as negative ones. Try a daily gratitude practice. Write down three different things you’re grateful for every single day!
If you find yourself managing a team, encourage them to practice these three steps as well. While negative thoughts have their place in our professional and personal lives – they can keep us safe or on our toes – they should not have absolute power or the ability to diminish our performance and capability to succeed.