Our brains are hardwired with a negativity bias. It's just in our nature to perceive and pay attention primarily to the negative side of things.
What is negativity bias?
Have you ever received feedback from a colleague that used the "sandwich method" (good, bad, good) but just couldn't stop thinking about the sandwich filling (aka the bad feedback)?
That's negativity bias for you!
Why is my brain doing that?
No, your brain was not designed to torment you.
The purpose of negativity bias is on the surface, simple: self-protection (aka survival). If we learn to be careful and avoid risk, then our chances for survival (social, financial, emotional and so on) exponentially increase.
Henceforth, your brain has evolved to protect you from risk and harm of any kind but it hasn't evolved enough yet to be able to tell the difference between a rather rude email from a client and the danger of eating potentially poisonous berries.
Why is negativity bias such a...negative thing?
Because this is a mechanism created for survival, it has the capacity to amplify the emotional response to loss or the pain of loss making the consequences of a bad decision appear even larger than what they actually are.
Basically, your brain is doing its best to scare you away from risk. This is called loss aversion and it explains why the pain of losing is psychologically way more impactful than the gratification of winning (or why you always tend to remember the bad stuff more intensely).
What are the practical side-effects of that in my life?
If you have heard some version of the popular mantra "learning happens when you step outside your comfort zone" then you can probably understand how negativity bias can become an impediment to your self-development.
If your brain constantly presents obstacles along the way, how are you supposed to reach your goals and grow in your career or in life? It's almost like self-sabotage.
I don't want to hear the little negative voice inside my head anymore. What can I do about it?
The bad news is that negativity bias can never be fully overcome. But for good reason: it's there to protect you and keep you safe from unnecessary risk as well as push you to learn from your mistakes. So even negativity bias has a positive side to it :)
The good news is that you can not only learn how to turn down the volume of that little negative voice inside your mind, but also, learn to use it to your advantage.
Here are a few exercises that can help you effectively deal with your negativity bias:
How to do it
What does it do
Step 1: Find a way to signal to your brain that you are engaging in negativity bias. For example, make it a habit to wear an elastic band on your wrist. Every time you notice your negative self-talk, snap the elastic band.
Step 2: Document the triggers that bring the negativity bias forward. When does it happen? Who or what is causing it? What is the narrative that it usually follows? Make sure to document it consistently and in the same place (your journal or notes on your phone)
It trains your brain to recognize the patterns that enforce your negativity bias. By recognizing your triggers, you can control the affect on you. Remember: change starts with self-awareness.
Daily and until you are confident that you have recognized all of your triggers. You will have completed the exercise when you can predict your negativity bias before it actually starts taking place in your mind.
What are you grateful for today? What were the positive highlights of your day? Regardless of how small the positive moments of your day were, make sure that you mention them in your journal.
New habits are only built by practice. Rewiring your brain to maintain a balance and to avoid catastrophizing needs time and dedication. As with any new habit, you literary need to build new neural pathways in your brain.
Daily. This is an exercise for balance and it will help you become more mindful and take notice of the little details of your day. Make sure that you record your daily notes in the same journal so you can go back to it when you need a positive boost!
Worst Case Scenario Analysis
When you are faced with a triggering situation, indulge your negativity bias for a second and write down the worst case scenario you can possibly think of. Make it as grim and nightmarish as you can. Then take a step back and read what you wrote: how likely is it that the worst outcome will actually happen? And if it is indeed very likely, what can you do to prevent it from happening? The exercise should look like a table with 3 columns: Situation/ Worst outcomes/ Preventive actions. For the scenarios you cannot prevent from happening such as a natural disaster, try to practice acceptance - some things are simply out of your control.
By creating some space between your negativity bias and reality, you allow yourself to apply reasoning and be better prepared for the things that are under your control. With practice you will see that not everything your mind throws at you is based on logic and facts. Remember: you are not your thoughts and your thoughts do not always reflect reality.
Every time you catch yourself spiraling down the rabbit hole of negativity bias. It's a great exercise to prevent overthinking and allowing your mind to rest knowing that it has done its best to keep you safe.
Final notes on negativity bias: before you jump into negative self-talk about your negative self-talk, keep in mind that we all have negativity bias and that this is not something that you have caused to yourself or that you are doing wrong.
If you are unable to "look on the bright side of life" on many occasions, it doesn't mean that there is something inherently wrong with your mindset. It only means that you haven't been able to regulate your negativity bias as effectively until now.
But you can always choose to make a positive change at any given moment. If you are fed up with the little negative voice inside your head, start putting it in its place by doing the exercises above and notice the difference it will make.