The human brain is an amazing organ. We rarely think about the way it functions to keep us alive and thriving because, well, we don’t have time to think about all the ways it does that. However, there are times when the brain’s desire to protect us hurts us in a big way…
One of those times is when negativity bias kicks in. While once one of the brain’s most efficient ways to keep us safe, negativity bias now keeps us from fully connecting with other people and blocks communication. Luckily, there is a way to overcome it.
What Is Negativity Bias?
Negativity bias is our brain’s tendency to continually looks for negative information, react to it, and then store those reactions. Here’s how it would have looked in ancient times:
You are a person foraging for food in the wilderness and you hear a sound – most likely a twig cracking in half. Your instincts start firing and you realize it’s either another person or an animal that’s stepped on the twig to cause it to crack. Since the odds are high that it’s an animal, and there’s no way to know if the animal is deadly or not, you quickly move into action and prepare for the worst.
If it turns out it was an animal, and your instincts were correct, that memory gets stored in your brain. The next time you hear that sound, your brain will react even faster — so quickly in fact, that you probably won’t even be aware of thinking about it. And that’s how you’ll stay alive.
Seems reasonable, right? In ancient times, there were many dangers to think about and humans had to train their brains to focus on survival above all else. Problem is, we don’t live in those times anymore.
Here’s an example of how negativity bias can look in current times:
You just started a new job and are introduced to someone who’ll be working closely with you. This colleague works in a department that, in the past, you’ve been burnt by repeatedly. Let’s say it was personality differences or competitiveness or some mixture of both. All you know now is that every time you work with someone in that department (regardless of the company), it doesn’t go well.
So you meet your new colleague and immediately put up your guard. You don’t give this person a chance to prove you wrong because your instincts are loud – and they’re telling you to watch out. Every interaction you have with that person is laced with your lack of trust.
Your new colleague picks up on your vibe, and their negativity bias kicks in, as your behavior sets off a chain of events in their brain that puts their guard up. Now both of you are reacting based on your negativity bias – and neither of you stands a chance at connecting with one another. As long as this trend continues, you’ll never have a positive working relationship together.
If this sounds bleak, it’s because it is! When we let negativity bias go from protecting us to preventing us from connection, it can cost us countless opportunities. And we rarely fix it because, even though we live in a different era than our ancestors, our brains still “go there” unless we make a conscious choice to change these patterns.
How Can You Beat Negativity Bias?
If you want to beat negativity bias, you first have to know it’s there. Now that you do, the next step is to want to put it in its place. How can you do that? By accepting the fact that it’s there, appreciating the role it can play to keep you safe, and then making sure it is never in charge of you or your actions. You beat it by understanding it well enough to recognize it, and then not letting it take control.
The next step in beating this bias is engaging your brain’s empathy circuitry. Let’s take a look at how using the example above.
Here’s how you can use your brain’s empathy circuitry to overcome negativity bias:
You meet your new colleague. Even though you’ve been burnt by people in that department before, you recognize that this is a different person and situation. Therefore, there’s a chance that things may go differently this time.
You also realize that your new colleague may have had difficult experiences with people like you, in your department, and you approach them accordingly.
Putting yourself in that person’s shoes, you work harder to gain their trust. Maybe that’s in asking them questions about their experience, asking them about how they like to collaborate, getting to know what they’ll need from you. Ideally, that person will see that you’re open to understanding them and will respond in kind.
Over time, there’s a good chance that a positive and collaborative working relationship will develop between you, because you chose to push past your negativity biases.
Do you see how engaging empathy changes the game?
Negativity bias is about self-preservation at the expense of anything or anyone else.
Negativity bias keeps us stuck in our own heads and focused on our fears – again, something that made sense in centuries past.
However, the modern world is a one of collaboration. We need to think outside of ourselves to accomplish the goals we want and to achieve the human connection we desire.
The Need to Beat Negativity Bias
The environment that required our brains to think in black and white terms required 100% commitment to the very basics of human survival: food, safety, and shelter.
That’s not the world we live in now. We’re not just focused on surviving anymore, we’re focused on thriving.
Thriving means much more than food, safety, and shelter. Thriving includes support and love, and a world of possibilities. However, it is also a world of gray areas – and the way we deal with them has to be much different than the way we dealt with surviving in a black and white world in the past.
This doesn’t mean you can never apply what you’ve learned from past situations to current opportunities. What is does mean is finding a place for that knowledge without letting it keep you from approaching new people and environments with an open mind.
While this may sound complicated and difficult, it doesn’t have to be. If you focus on responding to situations instead of reacting to them, then you can work to treat each situation with the thoughtfulness it deserves. Follow the platinum rule, engage that empathy circuitry, and you will beat that negativity bias.
Every time you do this, you will overcome the “factory installed” default settings in your brain. Instead, your brain will begin to default to openness and connection. From there, the possibilities are endless.
Image Credit: Tom Butler