On the Journey
news reel: stories of People, places, and learning AT Aspen Country Day School
Why is it that the bad feelings we have about losing $20 are stronger than how we feel when we find a $20 bill on the sidewalk?
Why is it that when a student earns 95% on a math test, she has stronger feelings about the 5% she missed than the 95% she aced?
Why is it that when a basketball player fouls out of the game, he has stronger feelings about the unfair calls made against him than the joy of his team’s victory?
It’s because a phenomenon called negativity bias is at work.
While on the surface it might appear that some people are inherently pessimistic, the tendency to focus on the bad stuff is actually hardwired into our DNA. Our ancestors, whose main goal was survival, were constantly on the lookout for danger. If all they did was notice the warm breeze and the beautiful landscape, chances are, they wouldn’t have survived to tell anyone about it, because a lion would have gobbled them up for dinner.
Negativity bias is a real thing; it’s the natural tendency for us to zero in on unpleasant thoughts and experiences, distorting their importance. As neuroscientist Rick Hanson says, “...the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” In other words, we easily absorb unpleasant experiences, while we involuntarily deflect the gratifying ones. He elaborates, “...humans generally learn faster from pain than pleasure.”
Think about a lesson we learned as kids: When we touched a candle flame, the stinging sensation taught us that fire is hot and we should avoid touching it. We naturally remembered the pain, rather than the lovely ambiance the lit candle created in the dark room. Back in the day, bad news signaled danger, and since humans are wired for self-preservation, it helped them make life-saving decisions in a split second.
Students put a lot of pressure on themselves, which is reinforced by teachers and parents, not to mention society. This can sometimes trigger perseveration on one small mistake, rather than the celebration of many accomplishments every day.
The part of our brain called the amygdala is in charge of of our responses and memories of emotions, particularly fear. Some call it a “danger detector” or “early warning system.” Because of our strong negative perception of a situation, we tend to react more quickly and more strongly. That’s why our children complain about the one problem they missed on the test, rather than take pride in the nine problems they got right.
So what can we do to combat negativity bias?
- Be aware of your tendencies. When you find yourself going down the rabbit hole of negativity, pause for a moment, and then gently tell yourself you don’t have to go there. Turn around, get out of the hole, and stand in the sunlight.
- Focus on the positive details. Make a point of enjoying positive experiences longer and replaying them in your head, kind of like favorite scenes from a movie.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Write down things you’re thankful for or feel good about. Doing this before bedtime can be a satisfying way of closing out the day.
- Keep a folder or box of accomplishments. Place school work, certificates, awards, writing assignments, and other tangible items that make you proud in a folder or box. When you’re feeling low, open it up and remind yourself of your successes.
- Do a “positivity” lab. (This is great for visual learners!) If you’re replaying a negative experience in your head, get a bowl of water (positive thoughts) and put a droplet of food coloring (negative thoughts) in it. At first, the food coloring will look dark and bold, but soon it will mix with the water until eventually you won’t be able to see the color at all.
In essence, “You can actually rewire your brain for positivity which will boost your confidence and motivation.” Obviously, this takes intentionality and regular practice, but with more self-awareness, chances are, we can all reframe the way we experience and remember things.
So, parents, next time your daughter complains about a 95% score on the math test, celebrate her mastery of the material. When your son fouls out of the game, focus on his skillful moves and teamwork that contributed to the win. And remember, when we pick up our children from school, we can expect to hear about all the things that didn’t go well for them that day; however, if we keep in mind their negativity biases and ways to redirect their thinking, we just might have a more pleasant car ride home.
Sources & resources
“The Negativity Bias and How to Beat It” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LfteZ9k8YU
“The Brain Made Simple” http://brainmadesimple.com/amygdala.html
“Confronting the Negativity Bias” - Dr. Rick Hanson http://www.rickhanson.net/how-your-brain-makes-you-easily-intimidated/
“Why We Love Bad News: Understanding Negativity Bias” http://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/why-we-love-bad-news-understanding-negativity-bias
“Our Brain’s Negative Bias” – Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200306/our-brains-negative-bias
“Understanding Negativity Bias” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E09077HRurg
Getting stuck in the negatives – Alison Ledgerwood https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XFLTDQ4JMk
“Hardwiring Happiness” - Dr. Rick Hanson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpuDyGgIeh0
“Why Successful People Focus on What's Going Right, Not What's Going Wrong” – Minda Zetlin https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/why-successful-people-focus-on-whats-going-right-not-whats-going-wrong.html
“Six Reasons Why You Should Celebrate Success” https://www.brilliantlivinghq.com/6-reasons-why-you-should-celebrate-success/