Negativity Bias: Why Your Brain Defaults to Scarcity and How to Flip It to Happiness

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Your brain is not designed to make you happy, it’s made to keep you alive. And in order to do that, it’s got some built-in biases, including a negativity bias, that literally filters what you see, what you pay attention to, what you notice in your life. 

This is why you might feel like everything is getting worse all the time. This bias fuels depression and anxiety. This thinking pattern makes you see the glass as half empty. In this video you’ll learn how to catch yourself in the negativity bias and how to interrupt that story so that you can be healthier and happier.

OK, this is an oldie but a goodie. Check out this youtube video:

It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for. 

There are always thousands of pieces of information that your brain could process at any one time, but it uses “attention” to choose what to focus on. Your brain is literally processing sensory stimuli, internal sensations, thoughts, and feelings, all at once. But you don’t notice the vast majority of the things around you, because you have selective attention, like right now you’re hopefully paying attention to me. But there’s a million things you could put your attention on. 

Shift your attention to your breathing?

Now shift your attention to the way your shirt feels on your body. Now to the roof of your mouth. Now to any sounds. Now pay attention to one source of light in your room. All of these things were here all the time, but you didn’t notice them, or you weren’t noticing them- because your attention was (hopefully) here. 

Trouble abounds everywhere. But goodness abounds everywhere too. 

Your assumptions create your reality. 

What you pay attention to, you get more of. 

Your brain literally makes more neural pathways about the things you pay attention to. So if you notice a lot of dangerous or anxiety provoking things, your brain is going to make more pathways for stressful, dangerous or anxiety provoking things. 

But, your brain also has a built in feature, a built in bias, meant to keep you alive. Let’s take a look. What do you notice? What stands out to you? (Write it in the comments) 

Now what do you notice? 

If you’re like most people, the spider stood out to you in the first picture, but you might have said “That’s because it was different” but if you’re like most people the spiders also stood out to you in the second picture, even though the flower was brighter and more detailed than the previous picture. Why is that? 

Your brain has a built-in feature called “negativity bias”. It’s a cognitive phenomenon where people tend to pay more attention to, remember more vividly and be influenced more strongly by negative information compared to positive or neutral information.

This bias is believed to have evolutionary roots, where our ancestors needed to be hyper-aware of potential dangers and threats in their environment for survival. 

So let’s say your ancestor was in an open field with 100 delicious watermelons and 1 saber-toothed tiger, which one would they focus on? In order to survive, you had to selectively filter out the positive opportunities and pay attention to the dangers. This is called negativity bias or risk aversion bias.  Your brain is not designed to make you happy, your brain is designed to keep you alive long enough to reproduce. 

Focusing on negative stimuli helps us respond quickly to avoid harm or perilous situations. However, in modern times, this bias can lead to a skewed perception of reality and an increased sensitivity to negative events or news.

You can find this mental filter when people say things like:

“Kids these days are worse than ever” (People have literally been saying this since Aristotle, it’s like our brain is wired to notice how bad things are)  

“Everyone is so mean” 

“He never takes out the trash” 

“Nobody likes me!”  Which YouTube comments do you think stand out, the dozens of positive ones, or the one really nasty one?

“This world is going downhill fast, everything is awful” Well, no that you know about negativity bias, our mental filter, which news stories do you think most people click on, the “Everything seems fine in these 1000 cities” or “Holy cow, there’s flooding in this other city!” After learning to watch for this, you’ll see it all over the news. In the last year in my state, we saw a series of stories like this: “Utah is in a terrible drought! Utah’s terrible drought continues. Utah just got a ton of rain, but it probably won’t do much good in this terrible drought. Pray for snow. Utah just got a ton of snow. But look at the collapsed roofs in this one place. Oh yeah, and we’re not in a drought anymore. Utah just got a ton more snow- now we should worry about flooding! Everything is going to be destroyed by flooding! Look, this one street was destroyed by flooding! OK, now it’s summer and it’s really hot” (Now look, I get it about climate change, but if the newsmedia cared about climate change, they would run educational stories about how to limit your emissions or advocate with your congressman.  But instead the news focuses on sensational stories because they know about this negative bias in your brain and they know they can make you look (which means click, which means they make more money) by running frightening stories. A story about “Hey, let’s change out your lawnmower to an electric one” is just not going to make them as much money as “Holy cow, check out this one place where something bad is happening” 

Whew, can you tell I get a little worked up about this. 

And I do because our media consumption feeds our negativity bias, and our negativity bias feeds depression and anxiety. And then they run stories about the anxiety epidemic, and make more money. And we don’t even notice it. If you really believe that every single aspect of the world today is worse than the past, may I remind you about polio? Smallpox? People dying from tooth infections because dentistry and antibiotics weren’t available. I’m not saying that there aren’t bad things happening now, I just believe it’s negativity bias that says “things are worse than they ever have been!”

Negativity Bias Doesn’t Just Impact Our Emotions

Negativity bias doesn’t just impact our emotions, it also messes with our relationships, politics and decision making. People may find it challenging to let go of negative experiences, ruminate on them more often, and feel the emotional impact of negative events more intensely compared to positive ones.

Also, if we feel bad, it’s easy to look for reasons that we feel bad. This is called emotional reasoning. PMS is a good example of this. Your body starts to feel like crap and all the sudden you’re looking for reasons why you feel this way, and pretty soon you believe the real problem is your husband, he didn’t put out the trash or something. 

Also, this is important. Anxiety literally sensitizes our brain to more anxiety. When we feel anxious, we’re more likely to scan for danger and notice more things that we perceive as threatening, and then we’ll feel more anxious and the spiral continues. Chronic anxiety or trauma makes our brains more vigilant to threats. This seems unfair, the more anxious you are, the more likely you’ll see threats everywhere and feel more anxious. 

It also might be a learned habit you used to protect yourself. If your parent was abusive, critical or unpredictable- let’s say that 3 days a week they were neutral, 1 day a week they were scary and 2 days a week they were super nice, if each time they were nice, you really dwelled on that, the next time they were scary it would hurt more, so you filter out the memories of them being nice, focus on safety and self protection, and you minimize memories of them being nice and highlight the negative, this keeps you from feeling too vulnerable and hurt, it’s protective mechanism that kept you safe as a child, but isn’t working too well as an adult. 

Mental Filtering Literally Changes Your Memory

Mental filtering literally changes your memory– you literally won’t remember positive things that happened. 

Mental filtering directly impacts how you feel. If you don’t want to feel sad and bad and mad all the time, you have to take intentional action to see the positive. The habitual way we think is like ruts in a road, and to get out of the ruts, we have to work hard to change direction. 

And because this is a bias, we don’t notice we’re doing it. We just think it is how the world is. We believe our filtered perspective. 

Mental filtering is a lesser-evolved defense mechanism. It works a little, it might keep you alive. But it makes you miserable a lot.

If it feels like reality, how will you know that you’re doing it? It can be hard to break the negativity bias cycle, but you can do it. Here’s how. 

First learn to notice your patterns? – Because by definition we don’t notice our own biases, you’ll probably need to ask the people around you or a therapist for insight on this. What kind of situations trigger this for you? You’ve got to get an outside perspective because we really do believe what we think, it’s literally hard to see it differently.  It also might be helpful to check the list of common mental filters in the workbook to see if you can recognize any of them in yourself. 

Take breaks from negative information sources.

 Slow it down. Get good at cognitive defusion. If you think “Everything is awful” or “The worst is going to happen” say “Thank you mind for making that thought.” Observe your thoughts without judgment. You don’t have to believe them or buy them. 

Challenge your thoughts: Once you notice the filtering, question the validity of your thoughts. Ask yourself “Am I focusing on one negative aspect while ignoring positive aspects?” or “Is there evidence to support this filtered thought?”

Because we have a built in bias to focus on negativity, this is one reason why gratitude practice is so powerful. If you’re consistently fear based or negative, try gratitude journaling each night. When you ask your brain the question “What is there to be grateful for?” it starts searching. What you look for, you will find. Trouble abounds everywhere and goodness abounds everywhere. Which one will you choose to focus your attention on? 

In the long run, you can train your brain to redirect its attention toward a more helpful approach. It’s not like our goal is to “Just be happy all the time” or “toxic positivity” (everythings fine!” fake smile) instead our goal is to see the world more clearly, to honestly address problems, and to remember that goodness and love and safety also abound. 

By working with a therapist, challenging your own thoughts and the bias from the media, and gratitude practice, you really can learn how to create an internal sense of safety, and stop seeing danger everywhere. This is one way we break the anxiety cycle. And for those of you on Youtube, this is day 19 of my online course Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 days, you can watch the main videos here, or access the full course with the workbook, Q and A’s and more videos at the link in the description. 

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