“The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?” says Julia Roberts’ character, Vivian, in Pretty Woman (1990). As it turns out, Roberts’ character, Vivian, was touching on an unfortunate psychological truth; the “bad stuff” is indeed easier to believe and the reasons why may surprise you.

For starters, our proclivity for paying attention to negative rather than positive information is an evolutionary hand-me-down from our cave-dwelling ancestors. Back then, alertness to danger, AKA “the bad stuff,” was a matter of life and death. “We inherited the genes that predispose us to give special attention to those negative aspects of our environments that could be harmful to us,” explains psychologist and happiness researcher Timothy J. Bono, PhD, who teaches a course in the Science of Happiness at Washington University in St. Louis. In this way, dwelling on the “bad stuff” is similar to the sensation of pain–it’s our bodies working to keep us safe.

Moreover, negative emotions rouse the amygdala, the almond-shaped brain structure that psychologist Rick Hansen, PhD, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, calls “the alarm bell of your brain.” According to Dr. Hansen, the amygdala “uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory, in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.”

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What is the negativity bias?

Not only do negative events and experiences imprint more quickly, but they also linger longer than positive ones according to researcher Randy Larsen, PhD, This stickiness is known as positive-negative asymmetry or the negativity bias. In other words, for a multitude of reasons including biology and chemistry, we’re more likely to register an insult or negative event than we are to take in a compliment or recall details of a happy event. The negativity bias can even cause you to dwell on something negative even if something positive is equally or more present. For example, you might spend all day with a friend and have a wonderful time, but if they make one small comment that perturbs you, you may end up remembering the day just for that comment–categorizing the experience as negative when the entire day was actually positive.

Another example, Dr. Bono explains, “Danny Kahneman (an economist who won the 2002 Nobel prize for his work) has designed studies in which participants are asked to imagine either losing $50 or gaining $50.  Even though the amount is the same, the magnitude of the emotional response is significantly larger for those imagining what it would be like to lose the money.  In other words, the negativity of losing something is far greater than the goodness of gaining something…even when the “something” that has been lost or gained is objectively equivalent.”

Negativity Bias: The difference between men and women

Interestingly, there is a difference between how men and women register negative comments. Dr. Bono explains, “The negative-positive asymmetry effect holds for both men and women. The difference, however, is typically found in how the emotions become manifest.  Women are much more likely to internalize them (in the form of sadness or depression, for example), and men are more likely to externalize (as with outward anger).”

How can you overcome the negativity bias?

But there is good news. Despite the evolutionary hand we’ve been dealt, the degree to which we’re able to override our “default” setting and avoid falling into an abyss of self-recrimination, insecurity, sadness, anger, bitterness and other negative emotions depends on a slew of factors including our upbringing, the input we’ve received from those around us whose opinions we value, and how we interpret what we’ve been told. “The single most important underlying factor is….how we talk to ourselves about our experiences,” notes Kenneth Yeager, PhD, director of STAR (Stress, Trauma, and Resilience) Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “If you challenge yourself…to be mindful of your daily activities, noticing what’s important [and what isn’t], you are more likely to have positive life experiences,” Dr. Yeager explains. Basically, you need to put effort into truly valuing all the good and positive aspects of your life so that you are not overcome by the negative. Even if you are facing a multitude of objectively negative situations, you can try to appreciate the positive aspects of your life, regardless of how small they may be.

Other ways to counterbalance our proclivity towards negativity? Grant Brenner, MD, Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center (New York), advises:

  • Be poised to gently recognize what is happening when negative patterns start to get activated and practice doing something each and every time—even something very small—to break the pattern. If you are inclined to overanalyze parts of conversations that you assume are negative, figure out a hobby or habit that keeps you from overanalyzing, like reading, going for a run, cleaning your house up, or creating a music playlist that makes you feel happy.
  • Notice your negative self-dialogue and substitute positive approaches. “You idiot!” becomes, “I wish I had made a different choice, but I will remember how I wish I had acted and apply it to future situations.”
  • Another tactic that might feel strange at first, but can help to approach your mean inner voice with kindness, is talking to yourself as you would a friend. When negative thoughts intrude ask yourself, “Are you ok? What’s wrong?  Why are you so angry? Are you feeling hurt?” The idea is to good-naturedly interrupt yourself whenever you start to trash talk yourself. It’s kind of like The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” except it involves treating yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you treat the people you love.
  • Perhaps most important, notes Brenner, is to “cultivate a gentle, curious and patient attitude with yourself. Learn to celebrate small victories [over negativity and self-recrimination] while understanding that you may have days of back-sliding. It’s all a natural part of the learning and growth process.”

It’s important to remember how much agency you have in letting bad comments stick with you or not. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Refuse to consent to make yourself feel inferior.

Last Updated: Feb 19, 2020