Monday, October 25, 2021

The Negativity Bias

Annamaria Fights Back

 Evidently, the human race has a bias in favor of the negative. Psychologists define this tendency as "the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information."

This makes perfect evolutionary sense. Since the survival of the fittest has shaped our make up, we are descended from creatures who cared more about what was and wasn't poison, then they did about the particular flavor of the berries they were picking and eating. As Professor Roy Baumeister of the University of Queensland put it, "Life has to win every day. Death only has to win once." So our species genetically pays enormous attention to risk.

If that weren't enough, anyone who has brought up a child or listened to his parents admonishing a younger sibling knows full well that the word one says to a toddler, constantly, is "No."  Baby crawls over to a hot radiator. "No no. No no." Two year old starts up the stairs. "No no. No no."

The upshot of this potent combination of nature and nurture means that negative experiences have a stronger impact on us psychologically than positive ones.  We pay more attention, and remember better our losses than our gains. We react more strongly to rejection than acceptance. (Caveat: I don't imagine that this is always true of novelists. Perhaps, in my case anyway, it's my tendency and preference for optimism that makes being a novelist a joy for me.)

Like it or not, humans are - generally speaking - more skeptical about the positive than the negative. There is no positive version of "too good to be true."

For the news media a preference for the negative is an economic decision.  Newspaper publishers have pretty much always known that bad news sells papers. "If it bleeds, it leads," is how they put it.  Nowadays, with 24/7 TV news channels, one can submit oneself to an unceasing barrage of endlessly repeated misery and mayhem.  Even if you turn off the TV, you can find – on social media - a constant feed of the same.  In fact, the social media algorithms ramp up the bad noise.  Negativity on steroids. They boost things that make people angry and upset,  and thereby help them go viral.

These tendencies may keep people safer, but they also have their downside.  They cause us to pass up opportunities, scorn new ideas, refuse to try new things that might be very beneficial.  This is especially true for folks whose upbringing over emphasized risk avoidance.  This negative bias also causes us to spend time, energy, and often money trying to avoid unlikely negative outcomes.  Don't believe me? How about fear of running out of toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic, which we know caused a shortage of toilet paper when otherwise  there would not have been one.  That sound trivial?  How about those HUGE budgets that countries spend on "defense" against problems that have little chance of actually happening.  Or this:

My friends all know what a positive attitude I have. I have bragged here before, and will probably never stop bragging, about Stan calling me a "proton in a particle accelerator."  I love being positively charged.

I also know that positive feedback is much more instructive than negative feedback.  It tells a person what to do more of and what to keep doing. Negative feedback only tells the recipient what to stop doing. It comes with no clues about what might work.

From time to time, friends ask me to read their draft work in progress. I make suggestions, but mostly I like to tell them what is working in the story. They sometimes tell me that I am being kind when I say I like some thing about their work. I think it would be dreadfully unkind to lie in such a situation. I tell them the truth, but I emphasize the positive because I want to them to know what works for them. Not because I want them to think I'm a nice person, but because I sincerely want to help them succeed.  For myself, I want to know what I'm doing wrong.  Of course I do. But I think everyone also wants to know what they're doing right. Don't you?

At any rate, I hope I can convince you to celebrate good stuff, as well as working to improve things that are broken and need to be fixed. Look at it this way, the human race has been talking about the apocalypse for at least a few millennia.  And more recently inventing stories about the post-apocalypse.   Guess what? After thousands of years, the world is still here.

Won't you join me in saying



  1. Thanks, AmA. I'm positive that your affirmativeness is an efficacious and forward-looking, reasonable, and productive method of constructing a constructive, good, sound, and progressive outlook on the future of all things. Even negatively charged electrons flow toward the positive pole of a battery. Case closed. [Cheek deflates as tongue is removed...]

    1. What Cheek! Please notice that I did not say “which cheek.”

  2. It never occurred to me before you pointed it out here how many "nos"we get as we grow up, as well as punishment when we do something "wrong." And the worst possible parental answer to why I can't have ice cream: "Because I said so." As usual, we can often learn a thing or two from animals. In their training, horses, for example, don't understand "no," when they carry out a command incorrectly, they only understand "yes," which is in the form of a treat. The instant they do it right, they get a treat and they learn very quickly this way. That's called positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement doesn't mean you punish them, you just don't react.

    1. I could not agree more, Kwei. Positive responses are a much more efficient way for people as well as horses to learn. Punishment, very frequently, only teaches folks to be afraid. Or angry. On the other hand, two-year-olds do need to learn to keep themselves safe. But “ No. No.” Can be said in a loving and kind way, not in a harsh or threatening voice.

    2. Yes, agreed--it's the tone, and an explanation even if you think your 2-year-old doesn't understand!

  3. Ah yes, Sis, how fondly I remember you skipping off to school whistling this irresistible tune...

  4. Oh, you are so right to be positive and promote good events and writing and people's traits. So much better for people.
    And what is the point of being negative about life? Bruce Springstein said tonight, I have to be positive. I have children. I want them to have a positive view of life and the world. And I saw young people protesting after George Floyd's death and they keep me positive.

    1. Thank you so much, Kathy. I couldn’t agree more, both about the need for positivity and nurturing future generations. And also in admiring those young people. So many of them seem to have their head screwed on right!

      I wrote this blog post before the latest revolution revelations about social media. Having stated it as a truth, because I saw it in my own experience, I can now share the latest analysis of how social media ramps up the negative bias. I got this in an email this morning:

  5. It's terrible that these companies are putting whipping up divisiveness and hatred because they earn more megaprofits than encouraging unity and respect for people.