When you receive feedback on your work, the way you look or a sports performance, it usually contains some positive and some negative elements. But why do you focus so much on the negative while the positive barely registers? In this blog I will explore the reasons why we focus so much on the negative, why it is harmful and what can be done about it.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

Reading time: 5 minutes

Near the end of my street is a family-owned bakery I really enjoy. I have been coming there for years to get my corn bread and croissants. The other day I heard that one of the female employees working at the bakery had made a comment about me. She had said to her colleague “My ideal man has the body of Sander and the face of Remi.” Sander is yours truly and Remi is the local barber who by all accounts is indeed a handsome man. But instead of being thrilled that at the age of 40 I still was somebody’s “ideal body“, I just wondered what on earth was wrong with my face!

Positive and negative feedback

Over the years I have had my share of feedback on the way I look. Just like we all do occasionally. Some of them quite positive, some negative and some I still haven’t figured out. My all time favorite in the last category being “You are so handsome, every time I see you I have to poop.” Please let me know if you have any idea what to make of that.

When I think about positive and negative feedback on the way I look, the negative comes back more readily. Apparently I shouldn’t wear anything yellow or have shoulder-length hair. Tried it, failed it. But why do I focus so much on the negative? The answer is the negativity bias.

What is the negativity bias?

The negativity bias is the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on our psychological state than positive things. And it shows all around us. When you watch the news, it overwhelmingly reports negative events. Violence, pandemics, economic recession. Not because positive events don’t happen, but because we as consumers pay more attention to the negative. So the media provides.

Negativity also takes hold in our language. There are a lot more terms for negative emotions, than for positive ones. Just try to name ten negative emotions and subsequently ten postive ones. You will probably find the first task much easier than the latter.

Sticky negativity

We can see the glass as half full or half empty. And the way we describe the glas to ourselves and other people has a serious impact on the way we feel about it. But what happens if you switch from the negative frame (half empty) to the positive frame (half full). Or the other way around. Alison Legderwood is a psychology professor at the University of California Davis. Her experiment on the topic showed that the negativity sticks with us while the positivity doesn’t.

Two groups of people were told about a new surgical procedure. The first group learned that the surgical procedure had a 70% success rate (positive frame). The second group learned that it had a 30% failure rate (negative frame). Not surprisingly, the first group liked the procedure and the second group didn’t. But then the first group was reminded that the procedure also had a 30% failure rate and the second group that it also had a 70% success rate. Now the first group didn’t like the procedure anymore, while the second group didn’t change their minds and still didn’t like the procedure. So people get stuck in the negative way of thinking about things. And that actually makes sense.

Caveman and cavewoman

Imagine that you were alive 100.000 years ago. You are roaming the forest for your next delicious meal, which is very important for your survival. But even more important than the quality and quantity of your next meal is making it back to your cave alive. One negative event in the form of encountering a dangerous predator is much more consequential than a positive event in the form of a captured boar. So from an evolutionarily perspective it makes perfect sense to focus on the negative. It is just more beneficial for you to remember where the hungry tiger lives, than the location of the blackberry bush. Although the instinct for survival hasn’t changed, the world around us has. Focusing to strongly on the negative can lead to insecurity and depression. So how can we put more emphasis on the positive events in this day and age?

Say a little prayer

Thankfully there are practical solutions to undo some of that negativity. And they are attainable for all of us.

  1. Take one moment everyday to think of the things you are grateful for. Even it is just for a minute. Some religions have special moments for this, by saying a little prayer before dinner or nighttime.
  2. Use more positive words than negative ones. It helps you to see the glass as half full.
  3. Carefully select your media intake. What news channel to watch and who to follow on social media can have a significant impact. Avoid consuming an overwhelmingly negative output on a daily basis.

Consciously paying attention to the positive takes a little effort, but it helps to overcome some of the negativity bias. And even if you don’t put in the effort now, there is good news for all of us in the future. Getting older actually makes the negativity bias diminish, according to Tierney and Baumeister in their book The Power of Bad. Nostalgia makes elderly people think about the good old days. And instead of focusing on what is lost in the present, they tend to focus on what was won in the past. That is what I consider ‘a glass half full’ about getting older. Maybe then I can fully appreciate the remark made by the employee at my local bakery.

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Sander Palm (1980) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral economist. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has a Master of Science in Marketing (VU University Amsterdam).

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source of top image: Photo by Moose Photos from Pexels


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