Why we always tend to focus on the negative, and how to overcome that.
About ten days ago, I was pondering over the question of why humans tend to overly focus on the negative and why a single offensive comment can ruin our day. I didn’t have to ponder for too long, since I got to experience it myself a few days later. I had posted about a collaborative project I was working on with a friend of mine: we wanted to write an e-book for aspiring Master’s graduates. Having tread the rocky path of submitting applications to grad school, we both knew the bumps along the way and wanted to ease the ride for those who came after us. It was purely motivated by a desire to help. For the same, we posted a Google form where people could fill in their GRE and TOEFL scores.
I didn’t check the responses until after a day or two. I saw there were already about 80, which was amazing. 80 people took a few minutes out of their lives to fill a form which provides no direct benefit to them. With that feeling of immense gratitude, I opened to check the responses. As I kept scrolling through them, something caught my eye: Stop showing off. I paused. I waited for a few seconds to process that message, and kept going. Ivy League doesn’t mean shit. Alright, what else? Attention <a derogatory term used especially against women>. And finally before I reached the end, I saw a row that was pure gibberish.
I closed my eyes and let the four rows sink in. Before I opened it, I had tears welling up and flowing down my cheeks. I didn’t stop myself. I let myself be. After a minute, I composed myself and was completely fine again. I thought, there will always be someone who wants to pull you down. But, will you let them?
Even though there were 76 others who took time to help me, my spirit was crushed for a few minutes by the other 4. By the lowest of the lows. By the 5%. Why is that? I wanted to know more. I was stimulated from a psychological angle. So, I hit the books (well, digitally).
Survival of the critics
Once upon a time…
There were these cavemen and cavewomen who had to spend their days hunting for food amidst saber-toothed cats and komodo dragons. If they didn’t have a heightened sense of attention towards predators while hunting for food, they became the food. Ouch.
So from an evolutionary standpoint, recognizing that we tune our attention more towards negative occurrences is a reminder of the intelligent human design by nature. In fact, there’s a term for it: negativity bias.
The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, is the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.
Studies have shown that although we are not born with this bias, it tends to develop very early on. As early as within the first six months of our lives. Unfortunately — or fortunately — we don’t have a need for this bias anymore in the contemporary environment (unless of course you’re on Naked and Afraid).
In fact, some say we are living in the safest generation of all time. But even someone more conservative has to agree, after looking at the data, that the death rate has been decreasing since the 1950s. Yet, the asymmetrical tendency to increasingly focus on the negative as opposed to the positive — three times as much — has stayed on.
“Here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.” — Factfulness
Negativity grabs eyeballs
In all its manifestations. But I’ll focus on the three areas that we all care about a lot: attention, relationships, and decision-making.
A study by Hochman and Yechiam showed that people displayed greater orienting responses towards negative rather than positive outcomes, in the form of dilated pupils and increased heart-rate. On a different but related note, the famous behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman came up with a riveting conclusion after a year-long research: our pupils are the windows to our soul. When we exert mental effort, it gets transformed into change in diameter of our pupils — dilating when we think hard and constricting when we don’t. Thus, we tend to spend more of our cognition — and attention — on negative outcomes than positive ones.
This is why we tend to fixate more on the rare insults amidst the trove of positive comments we receive. Once when a superior gave me feedback on my performance, it was filled with you’re a great communicator, people like working with you, you always follow up with a tiny suggestion on learning to think about the big picture more. What was I thinking about when I left the room? The tiny monster.
This tendency extends beyond just our day-to-day interactions. The people who leverage this bias the most are — sadly — the ones who create the most impact with it: journalists (of all forms of media). Bad news sells more. Period. But, it doesn’t end there. Because we tend to pay more attention to bad news and exert more of our brain’s processing power, bad news also tends to be perceived as the truth more so than good news.
Note: The above is not to suggest that journalists talk only about the good stuff. It is for us to understand why we walk away gloomy after reading a newspaper and not to take everything at face value.
Have you been on a dating app? See if this rings a bell: You’re scrolling through the profile of the boy or girl, reading about their interest in psychology, board games, volunteering.. and you land upon this one trait that you don’t agree with (playing video games?). You immediately swipe left. Why? If we speak purely from a mathematical standpoint, the three positives should have canceled out the one negative. It didn’t, and it won’t, because the whole is more negative than the sum of its parts, a.k.a, Negative Dominance.
As mentioned in the previous section, we have a greater tendency to perceive a negative trait to be true than a positive one. Researchers at University of Amsterdam found after conducting experiments with 143 psychology students that negative information was more influential in forming a personality judgement than positive information. This also results in an interesting paradox: a dishonest person can still act honestly sometimes while being considered dishonest, whereas the inverse is not true. I cannot be considered honest even if I let a lie slip in once in a while.
All this has adverse effects on our relationships with our friends, family, and loved ones. Since negativity trumps positivity, a healthy marriage is said to sustain only if the positive interactions greatly outweigh — by five times — the negatives one.
One of the key features that made us cognitively superior was our ability to make decisions, specifically decisions that might not benefit us in the short-term but we know will eventually pay off (all those kale smoothies will pay off soon). We make hundreds of micro-decisions every day. What shirt should I wear? Should I take Just Mercy or 5 AM Club to read at the library? Does it make sense to rush and get food now or stay hungry and eat leisurely later?
We use a lot of heuristics — rule-of-thumb — to make these decisions. Two of the more famous ones were proposed by Kahneman and Tversky in the early 1970s : the availability heuristic and the resemblance heuristic. We make decisions based on similar events that has happened in the past (availability heuristic) and based on the stereotypes that we’ve built in our minds (resemblance heuristic).
But if you notice, both these heuristics use the information we’ve collected so far in our lives to make the decision. If the attention is directed towards predominantly negative events, it is natural that we make decisions based on predominantly negative information.
Kinder, happier, better
Enough with all this negativity, I know.
At our core, none of us choose to be negative. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of our slow and painful evolution. But does that mean we cannot continue evolving now?
If you have read till here, you are already on your way to becoming a more positive person: now you know why you feel the way you do every time you encounter such situations. Awareness is the first step. What more can you do?
Reframe the situation
A lot of the times, a simple change in perspective can provide huge gains. Prof. Alison Ledgerwood conducted an experiment where she introduced a new surgical procedure to two groups of participants. To one, she said it had a 70% success rate and to the other — you guessed it — she said it had a 30% failure rate. Of course, participants liked the former option more. That wasn’t the interesting part. When she reframed the first option by adding, ‘you know, that means this has a 30% failure rate,’ participants didn’t like it anymore. But, the inverse didn’t happen when she told the second group about the success rate.
It is literally hard to get from loss to gain than from gain to loss. So let’s first establish that: reframing situations are hard. You can try to beat the odds by trying to cherry pick positive outcomes as much as possible.
In this case, as soon as I began writing this article, I paused to tell myself, ‘you channeled energy from a negative occurrence into a positive one. Kudos to that.’
Savor (and save) the positives
I have over hundred heart-warming starred messages on WhatsApp (and other medium) which were sent by my family, relatives, close friends, and acquaintances over time. I opened that list and read through it slowly. I couldn’t help but grin like a child.
But even beyond saving the positives, savor it when it happens. When you experience a heightened sense of a positive emotion — gratitude, joy, love — pause for a moment to take a mental picture of it. If you can go a step further, ask yourself to come up with three reasons why you’re grateful every day. It will take a minute or two, but doing it every day will form a lasting connection in your brain and make you a happier person. I can attest to its effect from personal experience.
I also called my parents and recounted to them on what happened. My dad told me about the Marshmallow experiment and how persistence pays off, and asked me to always look ahead. My mom made me watch a scene from a Tamil movie where the protagonist perseveres despite all odds (like every other movie). She also said something powerful, “The people who sent you that, and who engage in such activities, have never — and will never — contribute anything positive to the world.” Which brings me to the last point.
Understand that it’s a two-way street
If you don’t want to be at the receiving end of it, don’t be at the sending end of it either. My philosophy on this is as follows: I will not use the cloak of anonymity to convey a message to someone that I wouldn’t have the courage to convey in-person. Sadly, the state of the world is far from that, as is obvious from this article.
Mental health has become a vehemently discussed topic in recent decades — for good reason. 1 in 5 people in the U.S. experienced a form of mental illness in 2018. By making us more connected, social media has also made us more judgemental, anxious, and unhappy.
But without opening a new can of worms, let me just conclude by saying the following: We have a short life. Since the evolution of mankind, 100 billion human beings have walked the Earth. If you are reading this, you are likely in the top 1% by any measure: opportunity, security, happiness. In fact, you might be in the top 0.1%. You just don’t know it. So with such a short and precious life, think about what you want to contribute to the world, your loved ones, and yourself.