How often have you heard someone tell you to “think positively?” Turns out, while they’re right (positive thinking can have a positive effect on our lives), humans are hardwired to not only think negatively, but to focus on negative thoughts.
Which is why, when something goes wrong, you dwell on it a lot longer than you celebrate your successes. The good news is that once you know this, you are better equipped to consciously talk yourself out of obsessing over negative thoughts and events. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is a Negativity Bias?
The phenomenon of negativity bias has probably always been part of the human psyche, but it was first described and named in a paper titled Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion, which was authored and published by Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman in 2001.
In this paper, Rozin and Royzman described our tendency to give far more attention to negative thoughts and our events in our lives. They noted that we feel worse when we are experiencing pain than we feel good when we have no pain. We generally find it easier to spot angry faces in crowds than we do happy ones, and we spend far more time analysing and agonising over negative thoughts and events.
We’re not alone in spending so much more of our time focused on bad things than good. Similar bias towards negativity was found in rats too – they respond more vigorously to bad tastes than they do too good.
So, it would seem that at least some of our fellow mammals share our negativity bias.
In short, we pay far more attention to bad things than we do too good.
The Negativity Snowball
Have you ever heard someone say that something “snowballed?” It’s a term that describes the tendency of snowballs to add more and more layers as they roll down a hill. So, what starts as a small snowball can become a huge snow boulder in a very short amount of time.
The same is true about negativity.
When we experience a triggering negativity event, we tend to spend a lot of time focusing on that event. While we do, we might ignore other things in our lives, which leads to further losses, and more negativity. Before you know it, you look up and every part of your life is in dire straits.
Imagine, for a moment, that you lose your job. You spend all your time brooding about that, and the unfairness of it, and how it has impacted your life. You spend so much time focused on that event that you don’t pay your spouse enough attention. If you don’t pull yourself out of the cycle of obsession, there’s a chance your spouse might leave you. Which in turn gives you a new negative event to add to your personal snowball. Before you know it, one bad thing can quickly turn everything upside down, and once that happens, it can be very hard to figure out which way is up, let alone climb out of the hole you’re in.
Spending all your time thinking about something bad that has happened also makes you less motivated, and less likely to believe good things will happen to you again. So instead of going out and finding a new, better job, you sit at home, convinced you’ll never have a fulfilling career at all.
Conscious Negativity Management
The good news is that most of the thoughts and feelings we have about negative events and experiences are largely subconscious. We have them without even thinking about them.
But our conscious minds are much more powerful than our subconscious, and we can force ourselves to “snap out of it” when we’re stuck in a cycle of negativity.
It’s natural to feel hurt and despondent when something bad happens in your life, and you should definitely give yourself time to adequately grieve for your losses – whatever they might be. But you should also set a strict deadline, after which you’re no longer allowed to dwell on what has already happened, and you must focus on what you will do next to improve your situation.
Make Some Good “Luck” Instead
The good news is that just like we can sabotage ourselves with our bias towards focusing on the negative, there’s also evidence that we can and do make our own luck.
People who are seen as “lucky” and successful don’t have any special skills, talents or magic that we don’t all possess. They’re just more able to focus on the positive, and to take opportunities that present themselves. So, where someone who dwells on negativity might list all the reasons something won’t work, people who are good at “creating luck” see the positive opportunity and are quick to grab it.
There will always be things in life that we cannot control. But we do have absolute control about what we think and do – and when all else fails, you can always fake it till you make it. Pretend to be positive about everything, and when things start going right in your life, you will be able to stop pretending, and spend more time focused on the good things. It really is a self-perpetuating cycle!