Why we remember negatives more acutely

Negativity bias is real.

About 10 years ago I was speaking at a conference. It was a big room. There were lots of people and it was a really good session. You know when sometimes things just click. The feedback was overwhelmingly good.

Apart from one person.

They said ‘don’t wear your sunglasses on your head – it makes you look unprofessional’. Ten years later I only remember that specific feedback. I couldn’t tell you what any of the positive feedback was.

You could say this feedback was constructive. Helpful. Let’s believe it came from the best of intentions, in that they wanted to help me improve.

I ask for feedback. I want to hear it, yet, it really hurt and I still remember it.

This is negativity bias having a field day.

Negativity bias is when we place more importance on negative feedback and remember it more acutely than positive feedback. It comes up time and time again in the work I do with clients. Negativity bias can knock our confidence, stop us from speaking up, curb our curiosity, make us less courageous, hold us back from sharing ideas, make us risk adverse and ultimately it can inhibit the impact that we can make. If our negativity bias becomes too great, we default to sticking what we know and where we will feel confident to succeed rather than pushing ourselves to learn and develop, and closely connected to feelings of overwhelm and burnout it can impact across all areas of our life.

What is negativity bias?

Negativity bias is our tendency to register negative stimuli more readily AND also to dwell more on negative feedback. This bias toward the negative means you to pay much more attention to the bad things that happen, making them seem much more important than they really are.

In almost any interaction, humans are more likely to notice negative things and later remember them more vividly that positive things. For example, we tend to:

  • Recall traumatic experiences more easily than positive ones.
  • Remember insults better than praise.
  • Respond more strongly to negative stimuli.
  • Think about negative things more frequently than positive ones.
  • React more strongly to negative events than to equally positive ones.

Why do we have negativity bias?

Like so much of our behaviour, negativity bias harks back to survival. It’s simply one way the brain tries to keep us safe.

Hundreds of years ago, having heighted attention to bad, dangerous, and negative threats in day-to-day life was literally a matter of life and death. Those who noticed dangers and who paid more attention to the threats around them were more likely to survive.

Neuro science research has shown that there is greater neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli. In studies conducted by psychologist John Cacioppo, participants were shown pictures of either positive, negative, or neutral images. The researchers then observed electrical activity in the brain. Negative images produced a much stronger response in the cerebral cortex than did positive or neutral images.

Because negative information causes a surge in activity in a critical information processing area of the brain, our behaviours and attitudes tend to be shaped more powerfully by bad news, experiences, and information and less powerfully by good news experiences and information.

Negativity bias when making decisions

Nobel Prize-winning researchers Kahneman and Tversky found that when making decisions, people consistently place greater weight on negative aspects of an event than they do on positive ones.

For example, when imagining scenarios involving either gaining a certain amount of money or losing the same amount of money, the risk of loss tends to loom larger in people’s minds. People often fear the consequences of the negative outcome more than they desire the potential positive gains, even when the two possibilities are equivalent. In the research, people had a stronger negative reaction to losing $20 than the positive feelings they had from finding $20.

This tendency to over emphasise the negative can have an impact on the decisions and choices that we make and the risks we are willing to take. This leads to risk aversion and can stifle innovation, creativity and progress.

Consider Kodak, once the world’s leading film photography company, who despite patenting digital photography in the 1970s failed to respond to the massive market trend for digital photography. Kodak perceived investing in digital to be too risky, they focused on what they identified as their core strength, film photography, which eventually became an outdated industry. This risk aversion and the role of negativity bias was one of the psychological decision making factors at play that eventually put the company out of business in January 2012.

What to do about it

Simply understanding that negativity bias exists can be helpful. When you’re feeling anxious, angry or hurt about feedback it can be helpful to remember that as a human you’re more finely attuned to respond to the negative. You’re not overreacting, you’re simply responding to what your brain has interpreted as a perceived danger. Giving more weight to negative information can lead us to forming harmful beliefs about our competence and general ability. If negativity bias is impacting you, here’s some tactics to help manage its effects.

Pay attention to your thoughts.  After an event takes place, you might find yourself thinking things like ‘I wish I’d done that better/differently’ Negative self-talk is powerful and can shape how you think about yourself and others. Next time, start to notice the negative self-talk. Take a breath. Have a go at shifting your perspective to a growth mindset by asking yourself what you learned and how you might apply that learning in the future.

When giving and receiving feedback be candid and kind. Be aware that when you give feedback the other person is likely to perceive the feedback as danger. Put yourself in their shoes and be candid and kind. I’m a big fan of the Radical Candor model of feedback which is to state your intention and genuinely care about the other person which helps the feedback to land more positively.  If you’re receiving feedback remember that you have heightened danger to the negative. Take some breaths. Remember the intention of the other person, activate your growth mindset approach and think about what you can learn for next time.

You have a choice. How you talk to yourself about events, experiences, and people plays a large role in shaping how you interpret events. When you find yourself interpreting something in a negative way, or only focusing on the bad part of the situation, look for ways to also reframe the events more positively. Ask yourself ‘What are the positives I can take away from this situation?

Focus on gratitude. Because it takes more for positive experiences to be remembered, it’s important to give extra attention to good things that happen. Where negative things might be quickly transferred and stored in your long-term memory, you need to make more of an effort to get the same effect from happy moments. Make looking for positives and focusing on gratitude part of your daily habits. Even if you just spend a minute thinking about what you’re grateful for it can help to readdress the negative bias. And if you’re a colleague remember to help your colleagues out and be more deliberate about giving positive feedback at every opportunity.

Try mindfulness. Researchers have identified that mindfulness practice significantly impacts the negativity bias. I acknowledge that mindfulness isn’t for everyone, and there’s different ways you can practice it, for example, check out Headspace, and I encourage you to have a go and assess whether it makes a difference for you.

Distract yourself out of negativity bias. Shift your attention to something that brings you joy. We’re all different in terms of what that might mean for you. Here’s some suggestions to ponder over.

  • Go for a walk/run/swim
  • Listen to music that makes you feel happy.
  • Read a chapter of a good book
  • Write a list of the things you’re grateful for
  • Phone a friend
  • Chat to the dog

In summary

Negativity bias is real. We pay more attention to criticism than praise. Understanding that this is our brains way of keeping us safe can help us to process this. If we want to do our best work, we have a role in deliberately shifting our mindset to one of growth and learning and supporting our colleagues to do the same. Acknowledgement and managing our negativity bias isn’t pretending everything is OK when it’s not, or shying away from negative feedback, nor is it taking foolish risks fuelled by mindless optimism.

Working with and challenging our natural propensity to focus on the negative is about being open to challenge and learning, it helps us to maintain our confidence, make good decisions, and make more impact as an individual and as a team. It’s part of creating an environment of psychological safety where colleagues feel safe, happy from making progress, and where innovation and creativity can thrive.

And I still wear my sunglasses on my head. And ten years later my reading glasses too.

If this blog strikes a chord you might like Juliet and Lucy’s Quiet Leadership Revolution podcast episode on negativity bias. Listen here. 

If you’d like some support to help you or your team manage negativity bias and create environments where people can thrive, then get in touch lucy@lucidity.org.uk or book a time to chat here.

4 thoughts on “Why we remember negatives more acutely

  1. That is such a good read and actually is that feedback or just general criticism? Good to hear you wear your glasses on your head! My head always feels like I have glasses on top of it and I’m now found patting my head to find my glasses 🤓

    1. Thanks Alison – its both. Feedback about how you might do something better or differently even if said with the best of intentions can still land in our brains as negative, even if it’s not intended to be negative. I hope you found your glasses!

  2. so true. I was once told its like looking at a neon light display. If 99% of the bulbs are working you still notice the one that isn’t! I also wonder if there’s a gender bias here too? I know girls who fret endlessly over (minor) negative comments but boys seem to brush them off more quickly. Perhaps that is what lies behind our female imposter syndrome? Thanks for sharing, really though provoking and I am going to go an hug the dog now!

    1. Thanks Sally – I like the neon light analogy – and exactly this! My hunch is that there is a gender bias. I read some research about this… the research was saying that because boys feel less pressure to get things ‘right’ in tests at school than girls, (don’t know why boys feel this) they get more comfortable with things not being perfect and shrug failure off more easily than girls. This continues into adulthood – explaining the scenario where a man will look at the job description and meet 8/10 criteria and go for the job (and get it) a woman is less likely to go for the role unless they can meet 10/10 of the criteria. I’ll see if I can find the research – it’s certainly a theory which is interesting to think about.

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