Overcoming Your Negativity Bias

Nov 21, 2016

By Tony Schwartz

Does this sound familiar? You’re feeling a bit uneasy – say, a tightness in your chest or a rumbling in your stomach. You search your mind for the cause, and you think of something unsettling that happened in the office yesterday, a difficult conversation you need to have or a deadline you’re facing on a project. Before you know it, worries are mounting in your mind, one feeding on the next.

It’s a phenomenon called “negativity bias.” “Over and over,” Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, says, “the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things.” Or as Roy Baumeister, a fellow psychologist, puts it, “It’s evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good.”

True enough, if there’s a lion chasing you. Not so true sitting at your desk trying to work in a clear, focused way, which was precisely my goal on the recent morning that a succession of negative thoughts began to multiply in my mind.

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2 comments on “Overcoming Your Negativity Bias

  • “If there are negative feelings gnawing at you, do you know the cause, and is there anything you could do right away to solve the problem? If it’s just a negativity bias kicking in, try the exercise that worked so well for me. Get a piece of paper and spend two or three of minutes writing down anything you’re especially grateful for in that moment. See what effect it has on how you’re feeling.” —OP

    You can get that kind of advice at any 12 step meeting for a dollar. (That’s a testament to the wisdom of the 12 step program.)

    “It’s a phenomenon called negativity bias,” says the profound Haidt. Oh is it now? “The mind reacts to bad thing more quickly.” Does it now? It’s this and it’s that and the mind does this and that. And evolution made it that way.—Very deep stuff. How does he come up with these amazing discoveries?

    I have something of my own to add. Listen: when we feel hopeful and optimistic it is called positivity. The mind anticipates good things to come. You see, in our evolutionary past we were rewarded for eluding predators and other obstacles to our well-being and survival; the mind is evolutionarily adaptive to these positive feelings – although admittedly more adaptive for “the bad” to be stronger, as Haidt correctly observes.

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  • @OP – Before you know it, worries are mounting in your mind, one feeding on the next.

    There are some who are going to have their negativity biases in conflict with their positive attractions to English money!


    The revelation the UK’s new plastic £5 note contains a small amount of animal fat is “extremely offensive”, a Sikh activist has said.

    Jagdish Singh said it was “troubling” to find out that tallow – derived from beef or mutton, but sometimes pork – was used to manufacture the fiver.

    He joined a number of Hindus in urging the notes be banned from temples, where meat products are forbidden.

    A petition to ban the new £5 notes has attracted more than 100,000 signatures.

    It calls on the Bank of England to “cease to use animal products in the production of currency that we have to use”.

    Hosted on the Change.org website, it states that tallow is “unacceptable to millions of vegans, vegetarians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and others in the UK”.

    The Bank of England began issuing the polymer notes in September pledging they “last longer, stay cleaner and are harder to counterfeit than paper notes”.

    Its only response so far to the petition has been in a statement to “confirm that the polymer pellet from which the base substrate is made contains a trace of a substance known as tallow”.

    Critics say there are plant-based substitutes that could be used in its place.
    ‘Implicated in process’

    The response from the UK’s Hindu and Sikh communities began to gather pace after vegans and vegetarians voiced their feelings on social media on Tuesday.

    Hindus believe cows are holy and sacred, and many do not wear shoes or carry bags made from the skin of cattle that has been slaughtered. Practising Sikhs are strict vegetarians.

    Speaking to the BBC’s Asian Network, Coventry-based Mr Singh said: “Every time I come across a £5 note I’ll be reminded that it contains meat by-product.”

    He said no animal by-product should breach the sanctity of a gurdwara [Sikh temple].

    Gauri Das, managing director at the Bhaktivedanta Manor Hindu temple in Watford, is calling for the notes to be banned from his site immediately.

    “Our temples prosper on the charity of all of our members,” he said.

    “Our ethos is not to harm animals. It’s problematic for us because we’re implicated in the process. So it’s immediately become a matter of concern for our community.”

    Meanwhile, the president of one of the largest Hindu temples in Leicester has urged worshippers not to give charitable donations with the new £5.

    Vibhooti Acharya, from the Shree Sanatan Mandir temple, said it was a “matter of choice” but it would be putting up notices to make the community aware of the situation.

    She added: “There needs to be a decision made between committee as to whether we accept £5 notes in religious ceremonies in future.”

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