We all know the experience of being hooked on negativity bias – the tendency to focus on negative information and ignore positive data. This condition does not make us bad people necessarily. It quite frankly reaffirms our humanness.
We inherited our love affair with all things negative from our ancestors who were handicapped by the small size of their brain and the fact their daily existence depended on them deciding in a matter of seconds who was friend and foe. They also passed down to us the brain’s amazing capability to store all these experiences – many of them negative ones – just in case we have to call up those nasty encounters again to help us deal with an immediate threat.
Over time, our brains have become like a radar screen scanning for anything out there that might upset the safe cocoon of our certain, predictable and routine lives. Like a heat-seeking missile, our brain may detect 11 signals with 10 of them containing positivity yet will focus on the one negative message.
Since our brain is constantly searching for negative information, it gets overwhelmed with too much negative knowledge. To manage this information overload, the brain starts priming these communications much like a water pump is primed with air to pull water out of the ground.
Once the brain starts priming, it interprets and reinterprets its information banks in a negative and repetitive manner to the point that it shuts out any alterative explanation that may lend itself to a positive clarification of the situation.
This constant priming of negative information permanently shapes our schemas or blueprints of our lives that influence our decision making. These histories are codified in our brains and will talk us out of reinterpreting any positive information that may be in conflict with these earlier negative accounts.
Rick Hanson, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley has a handy method to combat negativity bias – have, enrich, absorb and link (HEAL):
When we have those rare positive moments, put them away for a rainy day or be intentional about recreating them in the present. Even if the experience is a negative one, try to find some silver lining in your dark cloud by being purposely conscious of positivity.
Once you find that positive experience, live through it with all your senses. This is where the Myers Briggs Personality Indicator Profile can come in handy. Think about the incident, feel the encounter, judge and perceive the occurrence with every fiber in your body. Linger in the moment like maple syrup soaking through a warm pile of morning pancakes.
Move from enrichment to absorption by figuring out how to make positivity a more permanent staple in your life. Ask, “How can I remind myself to constantly imagine how this positive experience made me feel?” We don’t want this optimism to just visit. We want it to move in permanently.
Confront the negative experience with the positivity you carry in your back pocket by holding it in the same hand. You will not eliminate the undesirable notion but you can dilute its impact. Hanson gives the example of how we relish the memory of eating our favorite meal yet at the same time transport the negative reminder that too much of a good thing can cause us to gain weight.
We will never eliminate the ghosts of negativity or reengineer the genetic profiles bequeathed to us from our ancestors. However, we can reprogram our brains to keep those pessimistic demons in the basement of our lives.
They will visit us from time to time and we will have to sit through those uncomfortable family encounters with our positivity angels by our side. We can let our negative cousins know who wears the pants in our family but first we have to heal.