We are all hardwired to experience negativity bias in our day-to-day life
“Bad news is good news!” Isn’t that true of most media, especially in India?
When we switch on any TV channel or scan any national or regional newspaper, we find predominantly negative news. Do we have a natural inclination toward negative news? This question comes up quite often. Ask any media person about it and he or she will tell you the reason. People love sensationalistic news; that’s why newscasters air more news with a negative nature. Space generally allocated to negative news is more than that of neutral and positive stories.
The main reason behind the media’s focus on negative news is not that there are more unpleasant and negative stories for them to report, but rather humans are mentally bias toward negativity. We are more inclined to pay attention to bad news than good news. We remember and recall negative news more clearly and quickly compared to positive news.
In other areas too, not just the media, we tend to pay more attention to negative news or events than to positive ones. We often experience this bias in our relationships. Usually after a single negative incident with our spouse, we need more positive experiences for neutralizing the negative one. It’s far more difficult to forget anything unpleasant that happens to us personally, sometimes it takes days to overcome the fallout on our relationships. On the other hand, we tend to forget positive incidents more quickly.
We are all hardwired to experience negative bias in our day-to-day life
The negative inclination is seen in every sphere of life, from the individual and family level right up to the national level. We are especially sensitive to negative thoughts and emotions because our capacity to weigh negative inputs is comparatively very high, whereas positive ones are less compelling.
To know the reason, we need to see this inherent aspect of mind as serving critical evolutionary and developmental functions. Because of our past, living the life of hunter-gatherers for millions of years, this negative bias got deeply embedded in our mind.
During those times we lived in constant fear of wild animals and other predators. Living conditions were dangerous and frightening. So, we became highly sensitive to any threat – whether real or imagined – due to prevailing living conditions. That’s how the negative bias got hardwired into our brains. We became very sensitive and adept at identifying threats and then remembering negative experiences so that we could better handle such situations when they happened again.
After only 70-80 generations of civilized conditions – compared to about 90,000 generations as hunter-gathers – our minds have still not fully adapted to this modern era. In a way, we are still remaining with the same sensitiveness to threats and as prone to fear as we were in ancient times.
We are modern humans with a semi-primitive mind. Our older part of the brain, which evolved during the Age of Mammals, still remains active. It coexists with the newly evolved part of the brain — i.e., the neocortex. Fear is, by and large, an outdated requirement for our existence. We fear far more by way of the imagination than actual impending harm. Our older (reptilian) brain is still conditioned to react automatically in threatening situations. Because of this reactivity, we humans have more of an inclination toward negativity than positivity.
Negative Thoughts act as a Magnet
When negative thoughts arise, they obviously attract more thoughts of a similar nature. And as we unconsciously attend to those thoughts, we end up strengthening them. We increase their intensity with our emotions.
As we all know, negative thoughts act as a magnet to attract negativity in our life. So, we trap ourselves in a vicious cycle. We all harbor enormous goodness inside of us. However, because of in-built sensitivity to negativity, this goodness is often overshadowed by negative experiences/memories, which we do not easily forget.
This inherent tendency of humans, a legacy continuing from the period of hunter-gatherers, has been researched widely by neuroscientists in the recent past. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson refers to this as “the brain’s negativity bias.” Because of this inherent tendency toward negativity, the mind is kept busy thinking about negative events/moments, not only of our own experience but also those of others.
Under stress, the harder we try to distract ourselves from negative thoughts or to suppress or repress them, the more frequently and persistently they resurface. Considered one of the most problematic features of the mind, this disturbing tendency can play a big role in almost all lifestyle diseases, including heart ailments, diabetes, and cancer. At the deepest level of connectivity, body, and mind respond to negative thoughts with life-sapping insecurity and anxiety, born of fear.
The only way to free our lives of negativity is to start starving negative thoughts by paying less and less attention to them. It’s an undisputed fact that no thought can survive for long if we do not pay attention to it. This attention is like a torch with a person who is standing in a godown in total darkness. Wherever the light of the torch travels, things are manifested and we become aware of those things, otherwise, they are nonexistent. If we don’t pay attention to negative thoughts for a while, they will start disappearing from our awareness. The frequency and intensity of negative thinking gradually diminish, as thoughts become “weak” and disappear from our awareness. Besides, we should consciously and intentionally treat thoughts in a neutral and nonjudgmental way.
Watching and observing thoughts in a nonjudgmental way can bring about a big change in the way we normally respond to negative situations. The more we pay attention to what makes us happy and feeling good, the greater would be our capacity to manage what makes us feel bad in the first place. This practice is known as mindfulness, which means we are completely conscious, aware, and mindful of what’s happening inside and outside of us. To the extent possible, we should experience mindfulness, like when we are walking, working, taking meals and baths, interacting with others, etc., we are present in the moment.
What happens in reality is that most of the time, we are mindless, our mind is wandering or it’s on autopilot mode. When we do this, we miss many things which we would have noticed if we were self-aware and mindful. We should look for positive experiences whenever and wherever possible.
We must frequently recall our past experiences which reinforce pleasant feelings. To the extent possible, we should avoid watching negative news. We should share good experiences among ourselves. We need to highlight the good work done by others. There is no dearth of good things happening in the world. What’s required is to pay more attention to those experiences and events, rather than falling into the trap of negativity.
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