Of the many mental tools available for ensuring a happy, healthy lifestyle, your mindset is arguably the most important. That’s why negativity bias can be so devastating. In short, the “mental tone” you adopt when absorbing information and planning will affect your desired outcome. Here’s how to spot and avoid one of the most common self-made obstacles to mental well-being.
What Is Negativity Bias?
The instinctual human brain holds on to certain negative memories (e.g., “The stove is hot, so don’t touch it”) to help us protect our bodies and overall health. Negativity bias is this concept taken too far, to the end of only remembering the bad parts of an experience rather than the mix of good and bad and planning for only bad outcomes.
For example, imagine you went to four parties over the last year and had a good time at two, a great time at the third and a really bad time at the final one. Negativity bias would be refusing to go to a fifth party because you had a negative experience at one of the previous parties. When you imagine attending the fifth party, you’re convinced it will be bad and decline the invitation, even though statistically you’re more likely to have a good time.
The Impact of Negativity Bias on Mental Well-Being
Negative self-talk is more than an annoying habit some people wish they could shake. Negativity bias manifests as decision-making in devastating ways if it isn’t reined in. An attitude of “Why should I bother?” arises, preventing those under the influence of the bias from forming friendships and relationships, advancing in their careers and even obtaining life goals. Not only does it hamper seeking new connections, but it can also damage existing ones: “Why should we make up when we’ll just fight again?” or “I’m not going to put in effort at work anymore because no one notices.”
Forbes notes that “it takes five compliments to make up for one criticism,” demonstrating the insidious nature of negativity. Not only does it color how those affected perceive the world around them, but it also shields them from accepting positive compliments and observations to counteract it.
Strategies to Overcome Negativity Bias
One of the best ways to combat negativity when it occurs is through rigorous self-examination. You may genuinely feel “X” emotion in the moment, but consider your current mental state. Ask yourself questions such as:
- Are you still carrying anger or frustration from previous incidents, even unrelated ones?
- Are you feeling hungry, thirsty or tired?
- Are you actually addressing the situation or trying to avoid it?
Answering these will help clarify whether it’s your perception or negativity bias speaking in your mind, allowing you to find an appropriate solution rather than giving in to feelings of futility. Additionally, you may benefit from actively soliciting outside opinions, particularly those familiar with the situations you’re facing. In these cases, be sure to only relay facts rather than emotions that may or may not be grounded in reality.
Cultivating a Positive Mindset
A famous quote from motivational posters instructs us to “Be the change we wish to see in the world.” This positive modeling technique can make a big difference at a personal level, helping combat negativity mental health-wise. Consider how often you offer criticisms versus compliments, and shift the ratio to proactively compliment and support those around you. Before delivering a criticism, ask yourself if it’s necessary or if it can be said in a different, more positive way.
In addition to reflecting these behaviors in the workplace or around peers, model them with family and loved ones as well. The National Institutes of Health notes that negativity bias can start manifesting even in infancy, making it important for parents and caregivers to be cautious about balancing exposure to criticism and positive feedback.
In addition, addressing negativity bias directly and urgently is shown to help ward off recurrences. Science Direct notes that failing to address bias over time will lead to more and longer-lasting effects, depression, fear and hesitation in associated decision-making.
Embracing Gratitude and Appreciation
With the mental and even physical toll that negative experiences can take on day-to-day life, it’s little wonder they elbow their way to the front of mental retention and prediction. Combat that tendency by continually reminding yourself of positive outcomes and experiences you’re grateful for by journaling. Take a moment in the morning or evening to name three (or more!) good things that happened during your day, and write them down if you can. This reinforcement helps keep good things at the forefront of your mind, making you less vulnerable to negativity bias.
If you feel a certain action or event can only lead to negative outcomes, take a moment to pause and come up with three positive aspects or outcomes that have either happened or could potentially happen instead. By demonstrating to yourself that good outcomes can also come from experiencing something, you’ll help stop the spiral of negativity and gain a more balanced outlook.
Shifting Focus: Finding Joy in Everyday Moments
In addition to noting the good things that have happened to you organically, take steps to make more of them happen. Rather than eating lunch at your desk, take a walk and enjoy some sunshine. Rather than eating a meal alone, consider inviting a friend over or trying a new recipe. Taking steps to expand your life experience, try new things and connect with others will help diminish the volume of negativity bias and help you rewrite your daily stories with a happier ending.
If you feel negativity bias affects your quality of life, get perspective and professional help with Restore Mental Health, where we have the expertise, tools and techniques you need to thrive. Contact us today to schedule an appointment and leave negativity bias where it belongs — in the past.