Negativity bias

In a now famous 1998 study, Dr. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago showed 300 people a range of images known to elicit positive, neutral, and negative responses, while monitoring the amount of processing occurring in their brains. As you might expect, positive stimuli generated much more pronounced activity than neutral stimuli. But more surprisingly, negative stimuli generated significantly more pronounced activity than positive stimuli. The study concluded that humans respond much more strongly to negative emotions than we do positive emotions. 

In other words, we have a negativity bias. We tend to remember and base our actions more on trauma than positive experiences. We remember insults and harms more than praise and favors. Our attitudes and decisions are more shaped by negative thoughts than positive ones. 

We wake up in the middle of the night with our minds turning over that criticism from our boss or that joke we told that misfired. We can’t seem to let it go. But we’ve forgotten all about the compliment our boss gave us the day before or our joke that was met with uproarious laughter.

For millennia, this bias likely offered quite a bit of social utility. We made sure to remember the cautionary tales from the neighboring towns so that we could avoid anything that might undermine our ability to survive and thrive. We remembered the criticisms from our bosses so that we could use them to reconsider our actions and build ourselves up toward unfulfilled potential. We remembered that bad joke we told to prevent us from doing it again and straining our friendships.

Today, we have the opportunity to absorb nearly limitless amounts of information, from the best news of social progress and human cooperation to the worst news of poverty, hate, bigotry, environmental destruction, oppression, and tyranny. Our negativity bias naturally pulls us toward the news that elicits anger, sadness, and fear. We reflexively click the headlines that anger, sadden, or frighten us. And so, the media outlets offer us more, prioritizing the stories that elicit outrage and despair. We get our fix and they get their clicks. And the cycle builds on itself. Before long, it appears the world is nothing but pain, anger, and sadness.

On some level, we are at our wit’s end coping with this interminable outrage and despair of modern life. Many, if not most, of us report being exhausted and beaten down by it. 

But on another level, perhaps a deeper level, we yearn for this negativity. Our instincts insist that absorbing as much negativity as possible will protect us from harm. Evolution appears to have taught us that those that don’t stay ever viligant to the many threats and dangers around us are those that get destroyed by them.

We naturally gravitate toward outrage and despair. Consciously or unconsciously, we choose them as our guiding lights.

Peter Schulte

Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA, USA with his wife, son, and cat.

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