Are we hard-wired to be negative?


“From the backstabbing co-worker to the meddling sister-in-law, you are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life or you can choose happiness instead. Take control and choose to focus on what is important in your life. Those who cannot live fully often become destroyers of life.”

Anaïs Nin

Are we hard-wired to be negative? It was a topic that came up in conversation the other day. We were talking about someone who seemed to always look at the negative side of life. Was always seeing the negative. The hopeless. The impossible. In whatever task, activity or situation, it seemed like it was always a “glass half empty”. In fact, these feelings were sometimes reflected in others.

It would appear that we are hardwired to have a higher negativity bias than a positive one. Why? The answer it would appear is to keep us safe. Why on earth is being more negative about something going to keep us safe?

Imagine we are back in the distant past. Scratching a living on the savanna. Looking for things to eat, looking after our family and trying to avoid getting attacked and possibly eaten by something, like a lion or a leopard.

You see something in the distance. Is it something to eat? Or something to run away from? It looks like a dead animal. Some people would go an investigate. Some will wait. And some will remember that that inviting dead animal by the tree had a leopard sitting next to it, gently munching on it and ready to munch on you. It would appear that those people that were more cautious; in effect more negative about a situation; survived.

In your brain, there are separate (though interacting) systems for negative and positive stimuli. Generally, the left hemisphere is somewhat specialized for positive experiences while the right hemisphere is more focused on negative ones (this makes sense since the right hemisphere is specialized for, visual-spatial processing, so it’s advantaged for tracking threats coming from the surrounding environment). You see a leopard and remember the leopard and what it can do.

Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. For example, people in studies can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that they cannot have any conscious recognition of them, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still get activated by the angry faces.

The alarm bell of your brain — the Amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) uses approximately two-thirds of its neurons to detect negative experiences, and once the brain starts looking for bad news, it is stored into long-term memory quickly. This is so it can be remembered and recalled. The next time you see that dead animal by the tree, your memories will come flooding back of poor Jimmy that went off to see and got eaten by the leopard.

Positive experiences have to be held in our awareness for more than 12 seconds in order for the transfer from short-term to long-term memory.  Rick Hanson describes it in this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

Further, since we are disposed to think and remember more clearly the negative, we carry that forward in our everyday lives. Yes. As we grow up and become adults, be remember more clearly the negative stimuli and their effect.

The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:

  • In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one
  • Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones
  • Other researchers analyzed language to study negativity bias. For example, there are more negative emotional words (62 percent) than positive words (32 percent) in the English dictionary.
  • People will work much harder to avoid losing £100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money
  • Remember that it takes up to 10 positive experiences to counterbalance one negative experience. this is certainly true of Customer Service.


So what are we going to do about being hard wired with a negative bias?

Accept it and just live with it? Or try to do something about it?  In the next article, I will share how you can change.

I leave you with the following quote:

“You just can’t live that negative way.

You know what I mean. Make way for the positive day. Cause it’s a new day…”

Bob Marley

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