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How to Overcome the ‘Negativity Bias’

You’re not stuck in a half-empty glass if you recognize and work with your most challenging impulses.

Overcoming negativity bias
Credit: Getty Images

Psychologists have long articulated an inconvenient truth for anyone who considers themselves a positive thinker—human beings have a fairly consistent “negativity bias” that leads us to pay more attention to negative thoughts, feelings and events than to positive ones.

Why is this? Why do we tend to recall an insult more readily than we remember a compliment, learn more from failures than from successes or react more strongly to a negative stimulus than to a soothing or comforting one?

There are some positive explanations for the negativity bias. After all, we are motivated to grow after a misstep. We can learn to protect ourselves from draining relationships, and we can avoid stress-inducing or dangerous environments when we notice our uncomfortable reactions to negativity. But we can’t dwell in the negativity bias forever. Or, more accurately, we can benefit from this very human phenomenon when we put the negativity bias in a positive context.

How? Start with these three ideas.

1)  Practice Positivity

Like your muscles, your thought patterns respond to how they are used, exercised and put into practice. You don’t have to erase the negativity bias from your mind (let’s face it, you couldn’t if you wanted to) in order to practice healthy habits like positive self-talk.

Instead, practice your positive lifestyle. Set calendar reminders throughout your day to cue an expression of gratitude, self-compassion or physical actions like adjusting your posture so you’re holding yourself with strength and confidence.

2)  Reframe Adversity as Opportunity

We’re living in a time of pandemic, financial stress and deep division. Our negativity biases call our attention toward those realities—and rightly so, they are true and troubling challenges. But we are well served to also see the opportunities in this moment.

Maybe there’s a home project we otherwise wouldn’t have found time to tackle or a relationship that has unexpectedly deepened through video and written communications. Maybe there’s a chance to give back and help a neighbor. What opportunities walk alongside the adversities of your current moment? 

3)  Ask for Positive Reminders

One positive psychologist offers a vivid example of the negativity bias—let’s say you have a day in which five great things happen to you…and you also step in a puddle and get your socks and pants wet. If you consider your day “ruined,” you are displaying a predominantly negative outlook. But you can rescue your day by thinking about the five good things that happened.

Get in the habit of checking in with people who were with you—literally or virtually—when goodness found you today. Mention to them, “That was an unexpected bit of praise from the boss, wasn’t it?” Or, “I can’t believe we saw that heron on our walk today, it was so beautiful!”

By asking others to reinforce your positive perceptions in real time or shortly thereafter, you are actually reminding yourself to balance your negativity bias in an honest, helpful way. And who knows, you may help your friend, family member or coworker have a more positive day as well!

Do you notice your negativity bias? How do you handle it as you try to live with more positivity?

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