Overcoming Negativity Bias

Tonya McDaniel, ABD, MEd in Human Sexuality, MSW, LSW

Posted by: Tonya McDaniel
ABD, MEd in Human Sexuality, MSW, LSW

Overcoming negativity bias is far more complicated than most people imagine. Though we often split the world into optimists and pessimists, the reality is our brains are hypervigilant to threats; therefore, we inherently have a neurological negativity bias. In a nutshell, we are more likely to encode and remember all the bad things that have happened to us and disregard similarly positive events and experiences. As a result, we can develop a general negativity bias that can negatively impact our interpersonal relationships. This article will explore why we have an inherent neurological negativity bias and ways you can overcome your negativity bias.

 

Origins of our Neurological Negativity Bias

The first step in overcoming negativity bias is to understand why we have an innate preset for encoding all the bad things. Neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to rewire itself to form new connections throughout our lives is dominated by negative stimuli. In other words, our brains are very good at learning from bad experiences. Evolutionary psychologists postulate that our ancestors were very good at scanning the environment for threats and that negativity bias dominates how we encode information.

In the most simplistic terms, we receive information via our different sensory systems (e.g., visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) that then travels to the amygadala which is considered the emotional processing center of the brain. If the amygadala interprets the sensory information as positive or non-threatening, then the information is sent to the pre-frontal cortex for meaning making. This is where we will interpret and analyze the information before sending it back to the amygadala. If the information is enriched or deepened, then it will be encoded into long term memory. For example, if I visually register a cup of coffee on my table, my amygadala would not view it as a threat and my prefrontal cortex would tell me my partner must have made me a cup of coffee and left it for me. If I spend time enriching this experience, I might be able to recall this positive gesture several weeks from now.

If we receive information from our sensory system that our amygadala has interpreted to be negative or a threat, it by passes the meaning making step in the prefrontal cortex and gets encoded immediately into long term memory. For example, if I visually register that my partner hasn’t washed the dishes (and this is a constant source of tension in our relationship), my amygadala would register it as a threat and encode the experience immediately into long-term memory. So, several weeks from now, I would be able to recall all the times my partner had not washed the dishes.

What this means is that we are more likely to retain and recall significantly more events in which we have been disappointed, hurt, frightened, or angered as compared to events in which we were excited, happy, content, or confident. Fortunately, there are specific techniques we can use for overcoming negativity bias.

 

Overcoming Negativity Bias Techniques

There are two types of memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory consists of declarative knowledge or basic data (e.g., dates, sequenced events, names, etc.). Implicit memories consist of “how to” processes, object relationships, feelings, attachments and biases. Ninety-eight percent of our life involves implicit learning and memory. Our negativity bias involves the implicit learning system. Fortunately, emotional learning theory has identified specific techniques to help us get to a state of learning or retaining information into long-term memory. Since the goal is to encode more positive experiences to neutralize our negativity bias, you can use some of these enrichment techniques to help transfer positive experiences into long-term memory.

How many times have you witnessed a sunset? In the countless witnessed sunsets, you probably have a handful of very special sunsets that you are able to recall. More than likely, you intuitively engaged in a few of these enrichment techniques to help transfer the experience into long term memory. The following mnemonic can be used to help you remember some of the most common enrichment techniques: To Be In Positive Now Experiences.

  • Time: You need at least 10 seconds of focused attention on an experience to increase the possibility of long term memory encoding.
  • Body Incorporation: Another way to deepen the experience is to engage multiple senses (e.g., hearing, taste, tactile, olfactory, vision).
  • Intensity: The more emotional connection or intensity you associate with the event increases the odds of remembering it.
  • Personal: Finding ways to connect to the information or personalize the experience can increase the odds of retaining the memory.
  • Novelty: The more novel or unusual the event or experience, the more likely you will remember it.
  • Enactment: Retelling, role-playing, recreating or any other form of enactment significantly increases the possibility of long term retainment.

The following scenario outlines the different ways in which a person can enhance the experience and put the positive experience into long term memory.  Let’s take the example from above where your partner brought you an unsolicited cup of coffee and placed it somewhere for you to find.

  • Time: Review the reel in your mind about how your partner went through the effort of making the coffee, grabbing a mug, pouring the coffee, preparing it the way you like, transporting the coffee from the kitchen to where they left it for you.
  • Body Incorporation: Focus on the smell of the coffee; warmth of the mug in your hand; color of the coffee & possible cream mixture; and taste of the special blend while you run through the thought of how nice it was of your partner to bring you this special drink.
  • Intensity: Imagine all the wonderful, supportive, loving thoughts that might have been going through your partner’s mind to motivate them to prepare and deliver your beverage.
  • Personalize: Think about how often you might provide your partner unsolicited beverages just because you cared and want to show them you were thinking about them. Imagine all the ways they have engaged in similar behaviors to express their appreciation for you.
  • Novelty: Are there any unique factors happening that would make this experience stand out? Are you wearing your crazy adult footed PJs or was the coffee served in a silly mug? Focus on the unique aspects of this situation or experience to help you remember it later.
  • Enactment: Send off a quick text to your best-friend telling them how your partner thoughtfully prepared & delivered this tasty beverage.

As this scenario illustrates, the specific interventions needed for overcoming our negativity bias are relatively simple and can be completed in just a few seconds. Granted this approach requires some mindfulness and intentionality in focusing our thoughts, but the long-term benefits of overcoming our negativity bias are important to helping us coming closer in our relationships. By focusing on the positive aspects of our relationships, we can help balance out our inherent negativity bias. This will help create a more neutral interaction and enable us to be less negatively reactive.

If you would like more support or coaching on how to implement these techniques or foster other ways of positive interactions with your partner, then schedule an appointment with one of our qualified couple’s therapist today.

 

*This article uses traditionally plural pronouns (e.g., “they, them, their, theirs”) as singular pronouns for purposes of gender inclusion and neutrality.