Negativity bias: what it is and how it influences our thinking

How many of us have cared more about being told something bad than being told something good?

We humans place more importance on what we see as something negative than what we see as positive or neutral. This phenomenon is what has been called negativity bias, And this is a concept that we will discuss in more detail below.

  • Related article: “Loss aversion: what is this psychological phenomenon?”

What is negativity bias?

The negativity bias, or effect of negativity, is the tendency to give more importance to the negative aspects of a given event, Person or situation. It is the act of giving more relevance to negative stimuli over those that may be positive or neutral. This psychological phenomenon has also been called positivity-negativity asymmetry and has a very big impact on our daily life.

For example, this phenomenon is what makes it possible to understand why people, when we know someone new and know a negative trait of them, it seems that we focus exclusively on the bad characteristics of that person. This would generate a negative first impression, which could hardly be changed in the long run.

It also explains why people we tend to remember more experiences in which some sort of traumatic event happened or that we didn’t like, Above those who were pleasant to us. We are more aware of insults than praise, we react more strongly to negative stimuli than positive stimuli, and we tend to think, more often, of bad rather than good things that have happened to us.

    Elements that make up the phenomenon

    Trying to explain the negativity bias, researchers Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman have proposed the existence of four elements that compose itThis allows us to understand in more detail and depth how this asymmetry between the positive and the negative occurs.

    1. Negative power

    Negative power refers to the fact that when two events have the same intensity and emotionality but are of different sign, i.e. a positive and a negative, they do not have the same degree of salience. The negative event will generate more interest than a positive event with the same degree of emotionality and intensity.

    Rozin and Royzman both argue that this difference in output resulting from positive and negative stimuli it is comparable, empirically, only by situations involving the same degree of intensity. If a positive stimulus has a much higher emotional implication than another stimulus, in this negative case, it is to be expected that in this situation the positive stimulus will be better remembered.

    2. Negative inequalities

    When an event, whether positive or negative, approaches in time and space, the degree to which they are perceived as positive or negative is different. A negative event will be perceived much more negative the closer it gets to a positive event.

    To better understand this: imagine two situations involving the same degree of intensity, the start of the school year, seen as a negative thing, and the end, seen as a positive thing. As the start of the course approaches, this event is seen more and more as something much more negative than the end of the course, which is seen as something that will gradually become more positive but not so much.

    3. Negative domain

    The negative domain refers to the trend the combination of positive and negative aspects therefore gives a little more negative of what it should be in theory.

    In other words, the whole is much more negative than the sum of the parts, even if between these parts there is something positive.

    4. Negative differentiation

    Negative differentiation refers to the way people we conceptualize the idea of ​​negativity in a much more complex way than the idea of ​​positivity.

    This idea is not surprising if we try to make the effort to count how many words are in our vocabulary and relate to negative aspects. We would have a longer list than if we focused on positive words.

      Bias of negativity, evolution and biology

      It was about giving an evolutionary and biological explanation for why people pay more attention to the negatives than to the positives. Below we will see what are the evolutionary and biological bases behind low negativity.

      1. Scalable basis

      According to neuroscientist Rick Hanson, the negativity bias is evolutionary. According to him, this phenomenon is a consequence of evolution, since the first human ancestors learned to make smart risk-based decisions that involved making them. Humans who remembered negative events better and avoided them had a longer life expectancy than those who took more risks.

      This pattern of behavior is what has survived, passed down from generation to generation, and this bias is now something common throughout the human species, given its great adaptive implication in the past.

      The human brain has been modeled to give more importance to the negative aspects, to pay more attention to them and to take into account potentially dangerous events for the physical, emotional and psychological integrity of the individual.

      2. Biological bases

      Studies by American psychologist John Cacioppo have shown that low negativity neural processing involves increased activation in the brain compared to the observation of positive phenomena.

      This would be the biological explanation that supports why human beings focus more on the negative rather than the positive, going hand in hand with the evolutionary explanation from the previous point.

      What was seen in the research

      Below, we will examine in detail some of the observed aspects of negativity bias and its relationship to social and cognitive processes.

      1. Formation of impressions

      As we have seen, negativity bias greatly influences the formation of first impressions of a person we have just met, which has considerable social implications.

      According to the above, negative information about a person carries more weight when developing a general pattern of the same, It is, an impression, that these positive data which were brought to the knowledge of this person.

      Although the positive and neutral aspects are known, the negative aspects eventually prevail, influencing the formation of the impression, which is perfectly understandable if one of the elements of this bias is taken into account: the negative domain.

      Another explanation given as to why negativity bias occurs in social contexts is the idea that people believe negative data about someone they help us to establish a reliable diagnosis on his personality.

      Negative information is believed to be a bit more reliable than positive data, which may have been exaggerated or taken as a result of chance.

      This often explains the intention to vote. Many voters tend to give more importance to the bad guy who made a candidate and avoid voting for him instead of giving importance to information from the desired candidate that turns out to be positive.

      2. Cognition and attention

      Negative information seems to involve a greater movement of resources at the cognitive level than positive informationIn addition to having more cortical activity when more attention is paid to the bad than the good.

      Bad news, someone’s negative traits, traumatic events … all of these aspects act as a kind of magnet on our attention.

      People tend to think more of those terms which turn out to be negative rather than positive, with the broad vocabulary of negative concepts being one example.

      3. Learning and memory

      learning and memory are direct consequences of attention. How the more attention is paid to a particular event or phenomenon, the more likely it is to be learned and remembered.

      An example of this, while controversial, is how the punishment carries more weight in the memory than the reward.

      When a person is punished for doing something wrong, they are more likely to avoid engaging in such harmful conduct, while being rewarded for doing something right has more likely to forget it in the long run.

      even if this should not motivate parents to punish their children more often for all, it is interesting to see how the treatment of negative events, in this case punishment, seems to have a significant impact on the education of children.

      4. Decision making

      Studies of negativity bias have also focused on how it influences decision-making ability, especially in situations where risk is avoided or loss is feared.

      When a situation arises where the person can either gain or lose something, the potential costs, a negative thing, seem to be greater than the possible gains.

      This consideration of possible losses and avoidances goes hand in hand with the concept of negative power proposed by Rozin and Royzman.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Rozin, P .; Royzman, EB (2001). “Negativity bias, predominance of negativity and contagion.” Journal of personality and social psychology. 5 (4): 296-320. doi: 10.1207 / S15327957PSPR0504_2
      • Peeters, G. (1971). “Positive-negative asymmetry: on cognitive coherence and positive bias.” European Journal of Social Psychology. 1 (4): 455–474. doi: 10.1002 / ejsp.2420010405

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