Pretend you’re a caveman.
You’re in your cave preparing for a hunt, but something outside seems dangerous, violent sounds you don’t understand.
You have two choices: Skip the hunt, spend the night hungry but live another day. Or risk death and go outside.
Hold onto that thought. We’ll be getting back to that.
Now imagine you’re driving to work. While getting off the highway, someone cuts you off. You slam on your brakes.
You know the feeling that’s coming. That tense anger rises up. Your fingers clench the steering wheel.
It’s enough to set you on a path to feel horrible all day. You might be less productive at work, distracted during meetings. You might try to counterbalance the feeling with a quick shot of endorphins from junk food, mindless web surfing or time-wasting YouTube videos. This only compounds the problem. This is like taking short-term unhappiness and investing it in a long-term, high-yield unhappiness investment plan, ensuring belly flab and career stagnation for years to come.
So why does this one minor thing, getting cut off, have such a powerful effect on us? Why does one negative experience ruin an otherwise great day?
The answer has to do with our friend, Mr. Caveman. Research shows that our brains evolved to react much more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. It kept us safe from danger. But in modern days, where physical danger is minimal, it often just gets in the way.
It’s called the negativity bias.
What is the negativity bias
It isn’t entirely Mr. Caveman’s fault. The neurological roots of the negativity bias started long before that.
In Dr. Rick Hansen’s excellent book on this topic, “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” he writes that humans share ancestors with “bats, begonias and bacteria that go back at least 3.5 billion years.”
Hanson describes these ancestors as living in a world of carrots and sticks, carrots being rewards (food, sex, shelter) and sticks being punishment (predators, disease, injury).
“Over hundreds of millions of years, it was a matter of life and death to pay extra attention to sticks, react to them intensely, remember them well, and over time become even more sensitive to them.”
How the negativity bias hurts our productivity
The negativity bias can be seriously detrimental to our work productivity.
Not only does negative stimuli trigger more neural activity, but research shows negativity is detected more quickly and easily. The amygdala — the brain region that regulates emotion and motivation — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect bad news, Hanson wrote.
Think about this, two thirds of your motivation regulator is designed to focus on negativity. That seems problematic. Also, economic studies have shown people are more likely to make financial and career decisions based not on achieving something good, but on avoiding something bad.
Older workplace models may have supported this behavior — 20th Century assembly line workers were not expected to “fail fast” or innovate. Being a good employee was following a series of don’ts. Don’t show up late, don’t talk back to the boss, don’t touch that button.
Most of us aren’t working that way anymore. We need to focus on growth and progress, behaviors that inherently need action, not avoidance.
Furthermore, values like openness and transparency are celebrated in workplaces more than ever. But we’re often not taught how to deal with a simple reality: sometimes transparency hurts our feelings.
Picture a team meeting.
“I think our UI could be better, feels a little clunky,” says one employee.
It’s a great example of transparency and openly sharing insights. However, employee Josh designed the UI. And even though Josh welcomes criticism and is on board with the company’s culture of transparency, his feelings are hurt.
Outwardly, he plays it cool. But deep down, some ancient part of Josh’s brain is stirring, latching onto this comment like an octopus.
His negativity bias is kicking in. He will be distracted and upset. We might as well send him home for the day.
5 ways to beat the negativity bias
Thankfully, there are things we can all do to minimize the negativity bias. We won’t erase it. It took 3.5 billion years to develop, it’s going to stick around for a while. But there are specific steps we can take to fight back, and research even shows we can physically change our brain to minimize the negativity bias. Here are a few exercises that can help.
1. Re-frame the language behind your goals
Even Pixar Animation Studios has felt the effects of negativity bias. Company leaders began to notice that employees were hesitant to share honest opinions in meetings, wrote Pixar Founder Ed Catmull in his book, “Creativity, Inc..”
People were afraid. Afraid of hurting someone else’s feelings, afraid of having their own feelings hurt.
So leadership introduced a new word: candor.
Pixar drives its teams to embrace candor through the Pixar Braintrust, a small group of well-respected creative leaders in the company who oversee a film’s development process.
By establishing this distinction early and often, creative workers are less likely to take feedback personally. And the word candor, in Pixar’s hallways, became associated with analyzing projects, not people.
It worked. “Candor,” as Catmull put it, freed Pixar’s teams from “honesty’s baggage.”
This also helps workers buy into the process early on, ensure creative momentum instead of negativity bias quicksand.
“Filmmakers must be ready to hear the truth; candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of things that don’t work,” Catmull wrote.
2. Be aware of the negativity bias
Hanson suggests being mindful of the negativity bias and recognizing that your brain wants to cling to these events like your life depends on it. It’s up to you to decide how dangerous, if at all, these experiences really are.
“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,” Hanson wrote in The Huffington Post.
So be aware when you feel yourself drawn to negativity. Tell yourself you’re smarter than your brain thinks you are. Develop a mantra. Try this: “I am not a caveman and this is not a tiger.” Repeat it in your head a few times.
And now that you know the immense power of negativity, you’ll be less likely to invite it into your environment.
The Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird financial services firm landed on Fortune magazine’s list of the “100 Best Places to Work” in large part thanks to CEO Paul Purcell’s ruthless aversion to hiring jerks.
As the CEO put it to author Robert I. Sutton: “During the interview, I look them in the eye, and tell them, ‘If I discover that you are an asshole, I am going to fire you.’ Most candidates aren’t fazed by this, but every now and then, one turns pale, and we never see them again — they find some reason to back out of the search.”
3. Keep a gratitude journal
For years, one of the richest and most powerful women in the world found herself struggling to feel happiness.
“I was stretched in so many directions, I wasn’t feeling much of anything,” Oprah Winfrey wrote in 2012.
That’s when she realized what had changed, her years-long habit of recording what she was grateful for each day had fallen by the wayside. After picking up the habit again, the positive feelings returned.
Don’t take Oprah’s word for it. There’s plenty of research showing that gratitude journaling pays great benefits.
“As we’ve reported many times over the years, studies have traced a range of impressive benefits to the simple act of writing down the things for which we’re grateful—benefits including better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness among adults and kids alike,” wrote Jason Marsh for the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, and a leading expert in positive psychology, has offered several tips on keeping a gratitude journal. They include:
- Focus on people rather than things
- Savor surprise events
- Write only once or twice per week, but write with depth
4. Work on a challenging puzzle
Do you ever notice how working on a challenging problem can make you forget about minor aches and pains? It turns out, we may be able to shake off negative emotions by diverting our mental energy elsewhere, like on a puzzle or memory game.
In 2010, a group of Israeli researchers found that “the intensity of both negative and positive feelings diminished under a cognitive load.”
Or as it was put in Psychology Today:
“New research suggests that this phenomenon occurs because emotions are mentally taxing; they take up brain resources. When you focus your brain on something challenging, mental resources that were being previously devoted to producing and experiencing the negative emotion are now being pulled away to solve the puzzle or remember the poem.”
The author suggests a few different techniques:
- Try to remember the lines of a poem memorized many years ago.
- Count backward from 100 in increments of 7.
- Multiply two numbers like 14 and 23 in your head.
5. Take in the good
Hanson also suggests “taking in the good,” by spending more time soaking in positive experiences, even small ones.
“Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that’s fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else,” Hanson wrote.
By doing this, you’re reinforcing positive patterns in your brain. And your brain learns from experiences, building new neural pathways, researchers call this neuroplasticity.
The key here is give yourself time to let those thoughts settle in. Don’t just push them aside.
“People tend to be really good at having that beneficial state of mind in the first place, but they don’t take the extra 10 seconds required for the transfer to occur from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage,” Hanson told Fast Company. “Really get those neurons firing together so that they wire this growing inner strength in your brain.”
The negativity bias is powerful and fighting it will take time. But it’s well worth the effort. Practice these things consistently, and you’ll notice your negativity bias shrinking.
You just have to work for it.
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