Negativity Bias

Excerpt from Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher:


Horse Frightened by a Lion, by George Stubbs

According to psychology’s ‘negativity bias theory,’ we pay more attention to unpleasant feelings such as fear, anger, and sadness because they’re simply more powerful than the agreeable sort…An all too-abundant body of evidence attests to psychological pain’s bottom-up grip on your attention. In a survey of which topics we spend the most time thinking about, problematic relationships and troubled projects topped the list. You’ll work harder to avoid losing money than you will to gain the same amount. If you hear both something positive and something negative about a stranger, you’ll take the negative view. If something bad happens, even if something good does too, you’ll still feel dispirited. You’re likelier to notice threats than opportunities or signs that all’s well.

The grim testimony to a dark emotion’s way of grabbing your attention goes on and on. You’ll spot an angry face in a crowd of cheery people much faster than a cheery one in an angry crowd. You’ll process and remember negative material better than the positive sort. You’ll spend more time looking at photographs depicting nasty rather than nice behavior and react to critical words more slowly and with more eye blinks—signs of greater cognition—than to flattering ones…

For the species in general and the individual in particular, the main advantage of paying attention to an unhappy emotion is that it attunes you to potential threat or loss and pressures you to avoid or relieve the pain by solving the associated problem. Thus, your fear of becoming ill induces you to get a flu shot. Your guilt over a divorce pushes you to give extra consideration to the children. Your shame at being fired hardens your resolve to go out there and get an even better one.