Curbing Your Negativity Bias

Our brain has a negativity bias, making it like Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good. We have to learn to weave the positive into the fabric of our brains. ~Rick Hanson, PhD

Over the past week I was reminded how easily we gravitate toward the negative. It’s our default and it takes deliberate effort to circumvent the negativity. I’ll share a couple of specific examples.

One example is simply my walks through the neighborhood. It’s finally spring so more people are out in their yards and some are anxious for a conversation. When I looked back on some of those chats, I realized that we want, or maybe need, to share what’s not so good in our lives, what’s frustrating us, or just a little good old complaining.

A second example is something I’ve heard frequently and it came up again last week with a client. I was leading a discussion about the ratio of positive to negative feedback to create the most effective team performance (the ratio by the way is 6 positive for every 1 negative). And I received pushback with the comment, “why should I give someone a compliment (positive feedback) for doing their job.” Which was followed by, “I don’t want to stroke their ego.”

Negativity Bias

The negativity bias is a tendency to have greater sensitivity to negative than to positive events. Some psychological researchers suggest that negative events weigh close to three times more than positive events. This may also be known as positive-negative asymmetry. This negativity bias means that we feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise.

If we want symmetry, then the positive and negative needs to be 3 to 1. One to one creates asymmetry that’s not in your favor, whether you’re the one on the giving or receiving end. So while 6 to 1 may sound excessive, it’s really slightly tipping the scales in your favor because as humans, we suffer from negativity bias.

Rethinking Symmetry

I’d like to take this a step further and address complimenting someone for “simply doing their job.” Well, let’s say that you have a significant other in your life and for the past five years, you have dutifully completed a mundane chore like taking out the garbage. Not once has this person thanked you, because, well, that’s just your responsibility. How does that make you feel?  Now imagine if every now and then they acknowledged how much they appreciate your consistent completion of this mundane chore. How would you then feel about the person, and even, about yourself? How might that impact your relationship? How might you feel when they do need to address something negative with you?

Sometimes I think we need even more positive feedback about the things we do that are simply parts of our job because many times those are the most draining because they might be mundane, uncomfortable, or so routine that they require no challenge whatsoever. So, yes, we do need to give others positive feedback for simply doing their job because that might be some of the most “thankless” work that they do. Are we then stroking their ego, or just recognizing their humanity?

Practice leading with bold grace and help others to weave the positive into the fabric their brains.

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