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Confronting the Negativity Bias

Posted: 10/ 8/2010 8:00 am

My previous post used the example of Stephen Colbert's satirical "March to Keep Fear Alive" as a timely illustration of a larger point: humans evolved to be fearful -- since that helped keep our ancestors alive -- so we are very vulnerable to being frightened and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and "paper tigers." With this march, Colbert is obviously mocking those who play on fear, since we certainly don't need any new reminders to keep fear alive.

Some Background
This vulnerability to feeling threatened has effects at many levels, ranging from individuals, couples, and families, to schoolyards, organizations and nations. Whether it's an individual who worries about the consequences of speaking up at work or in a close relationship, a family cowed by a scary parent, a business fixated on threats instead of opportunities, or a country that's routinely told it's under "Threat Level Orange," it's the same human brain that reacts in all cases.

Therefore, understanding how your brain became so vigilant and wary, and so easily hijacked by alarm, is the first step toward gaining more control over that ancient circuitry. Then, by bringing mindful awareness to how your brain reacts to feeling threatened, you can stimulate and therefore build up the neural substrates of a mind that has more calm, wisdom and sense of inner strength. A mind that sees real threats more clearly, acts more effectively in dealing with them, and is less rattled or distracted by exaggerated, manageable, or false alarms.

Let's start with the brain's negativity bias. In this post, I'll focus on why it evolved and how it has been built up in your brain. The next post will explore its consequences. The post after that will zero in on one key consequence: threat reactivity, which has many bad effects, including "paper tiger paranoia." And then following posts will emphasize solutions to these problems, from activating the soothing and recharging parasympathetic nervous system to mobilizing more of your inner resources to address the real challenges our planet faces.

An Evolving Negativity Bias
The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, from ancient jellyfish to modern humans. Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day: approach a reward or avoid a hazard -- pursue a carrot or duck a stick.

Both are important. Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you've got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band's children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you've got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here's the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you'll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today - WHAP! - no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

Body and Brain Going Negative
Consequently, your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones. For example, intense pain can be produced all over the body, but intense pleasure comes only (for most people) from stimulating a few specific regions.

In your brain, there are separate (though interacting) systems for negative and positive stimuli. At a larger scale, the left hemisphere is somewhat specialized for positive experiences while the right hemisphere is more focused on negative ones (this makes sense since the right hemisphere is specialized for gestalt, visual-spatial processing, so it's advantaged for tracking threats coming from the surrounding environment).

Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. For example, people in studies can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that they cannot have any conscious recognition of them, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still get activated by the angry faces.

The alarm bell of your brain -- the amygdala (you've got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) -- uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it's primed to go negative. 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.

In effect, as I wrote in my last post, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. That's why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain (alas) than pleasure. (For more on the neuropsychology of the negativity bias, and references, see the slide sets at my website.)

That learning from your childhood and adulthood - both what you experienced yourself and saw others experiencing around you - is locked and loaded in your head today, ready for immediate activation, whether by a frown across a dinner table or by TV images of a car-bombing 10,000 miles away.

What to Do?
To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

So for starters, be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert. And wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information (e.g., fixing on a casual aside from a family member or co-worker), to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive. (And, to be sure, also be mindful of any tendency you might have toward rose-colored glasses or putting that ostrich head in the sand.)

Additionally, be mindful of the forces around you that beat the drum of alarm -- whether it's a family member who threatens emotional punishment, or in the well-known example, a National Security Advisor (Condoleezza Rice) who warned in 2002 that the smoking gun of evidence for WMDs in Iraq could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. Consider for yourself whether their alarms are valid -- or whether they are exaggerated or empty, while downplaying or missing the larger context of opportunities and resources. Ask yourself what these forces could be getting out of beating that scary drum.

This mindfulness of both the inner workings of your brain and the outer mechanisms of fear-promotion can by itself make you less prone to needless fear.

Then you won't be so vulnerable to intimidation by apparent "tigers" that are in fact manageable, blown out of proportion, or made of paper-mache.