Our Negativity Bias

Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA
Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA

Biologically, we are programmed to look for the worst in situations…and it is a good thing we do.

Our biology would take us back to primitive times where we would want to be on the lookout for the worst case scenario—a sabre toothed tiger over the next ridge or a tribe or warring enemies mounting an attack. Even today, we’re vigilant walking down an unfamiliar dark street and night…a good practice to keep available.

In our regular lives, however, this built in bias, known as the negativity bias creates danger where it may never exist. And that creates undo stress. One of the ways to overcome the negativity bias is to acknowledge and highlight things we do well for ourselves and with our work teams.

Research undertaken by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina found that high performing teams made more positive statements to one another than negative statements at a ratio of 5.6:1. That means that for every negative statement, team members made 5.6 positive statements. In low performing teams, positive to negative ratios were .36:1 meaning that they team said 3 negatives for every positive statement.

The idea is to build a positivity bias that helps us get away from our biological predispositions. Building a positivity bias is not hard but does mean overcoming this strong biological tendency to focus on negatives. Try out some of these ideas:

  • Read something inspirational when you get up and don’t immediately turn on the TV news that only focuses on the negative.
  • Look for and acknowledge your successes and the successes of others with an affirming statement
  • Write down all your worries and anxieties before you go to bed so you know what they are. It may help you sleep better at night.
  • Practice gratitude in whatever manner works best for you. It may be a spiritual practice, giving a loved one a hug or sharing a thank you with a colleague who bailed you out of a jam.

© Richard Citrin, 2014


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1 thought on “Our Negativity Bias”

  1. Good post Richard. I’m happy to learn that my bias toward what’s not working or the negative is biologically determined and not a character flaw. I have found that becoming more aware of what triggers my negativity is helpful too. Once I’m aware of what triggers my negativity bias I can make different choices. But until I’m aware new choices are elusive.
    I think your posts are very thoughtful and practical. Thank you for helping to make my day more productive.

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