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  • Writer's pictureHelen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Negative Bias: How to Train Your Brain to be Positive

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Does this sound familiar? You had a pretty good day, finished that project and got praised by your boss, but guess what it is you remember when you think about your day? It’s the person who cut you off on the highway, or maybe it’s the snarky comment made by your colleague that you are now playing over and over in your mind along with a variety of smartass responses you think you should've made. This is a prime example of our brain’s negative bias.

Our negative bias also impacts our relationships. We have a tendency to fixate on what we don’t like about our friends, colleagues, partners, or neighbours, as opposed to reminding ourselves what we love, cherish, and are grateful for.

Simply put, bad stuff has far more of an impact on our brain that the good stuff.

Negative Bias Effects:

• Think more about unpleasant or traumatic events or memories than pleasant ones

• Remember insults more than compliments

• Notice negative behaviours more than positive behaviours

• Focus our attention more on bad news than good

• Respond more strongly to negative events than we do positive events

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” Dr. Rick Hansen

Where Does It Come From?

Negative bias is not a new phenomenon. Our ability to focus on and look for negative information has developed over millions of years as a survival mechanism. From back in our prehistoric days, our ability to survive was based on our capacity to avoid danger, run faster, fight harder, play dead if necessary (yup! there’s our fight, flight, freeze) so we overestimated threats to our safety, and it worked, so we kept on doing it.

Mask Wars

Woman wearing a mask for COVID-19

Jump to 2020 and now here I am standing in a grocery store and guess what my brain’s alarm bell pays attention to? Yes, someone not wearing a mask or someone not physically distancing. This is a perfect example of negative bias. Our brains have learned to judge and be critical of people who are, in our threat sensitive brain’s view, risking our safety. Our limbic system is designed to deal with threats very quickly and efficiently which it does by temporarily shutting off access to our prefrontal cortex, our rational brain. For this reason I’m not thinking “oh, maybe that person forgot their mask, maybe that person isn’t able to wear a mask safely, maybe that person has to deal with judgments every day.” Nope, my brain just goes: NO MASK = BAD PERSON.

Our negative bias tendencies aren’t helped by the media. Our news channels and social media platforms all play into this too. News channels tend to show the negative news stories with maybe one “feel good” story thrown in. You might have noticed during the recent election coverage both here in B.C. and in the U.S., that when we watch debates or interviews with politicians, they don’t often push all the positive things they have done, they push the negative things their opponents have done, or personal attacks on their character. These campaigns can become really nasty, digging dirt on each other and swapping insults. Our brains eat that up.

Trauma & Negative Bias

This bias can be even more pronounced for folks who’ve been through trauma. This is because at some point earlier in life, something harmful or painful has happened, so the threat detecting part of your brain is on high alert to avoid it happening again. There have been many studies conducted that show that people with childhood trauma actually view neutral faces as being angry faces. It’s not hard to imagine how that causes challenges, the world seems even more scary than before and it’s harder to think good of, or trust people who maybe have no harmful intentions toward us. After all, if we are always expecting the worst we don’t give the world a chance to show us its best.

How to Change Negative Bias

One of the most incredible aspects of our neurobiology is how flexible our brain is. This is referred to as “plasticity” that means our brain is very capable of adaptation and change, so in effect we can actually rewire some of our brain’s programming to make it more positive focussed. Here are some steps you can take:

Open Mindedness

Remember that the snap judgments we make about people as we go through our day might be our brain’s negative bias. Try to notice when this happens, take a few deep breaths and allow your prefrontal brain to kick in so you can think rationally and allow for other perspectives on a situation. For example, the person who cut you off might not be a bad person, perhaps they just found out their wife is giving birth and they’re trying to get there, it doesn’t even matter how likely this is, just allowing for other, less negative perspectives can release us from the trap of negativity. You can also do this for yourself, notice how often you talk to yourself in a negative or judgmental way, try to switch it up and be more positive and understanding of your own challenges or imperfections. Saying: “I’m doing the best I can,” goes a long way, even if you don’t believe it to begin with, saying it out loud can help us feel better.

happy smiling dog

Small Moments of Awesome

Mindfulness comes into play here because so often in our day we are so mentally attuned to events that are in the past (especially negative ones) we can miss the small moments of positivity and beauty that are right in front of us in the present. So when you’re on a walk, instead of playing through the day’s events or planning your evening schedule, actually notice what’s around you, look for small moments of happiness, look for nature, watch dogs playing, look at the sky, smile at people, if you get the chance to, offer help or give positive feedback to someone else. On the days where it seems there is nothing to be positive about, try and find something, however small, to be grateful for or to make you smile. There's always cat videos!

Remember to be mindful about the time you spend on social media scrolling through negative stories, look for sites that aim to share positivity, like the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.

Encoding Positive Events

When something positive happens, a compliment or a fun outing, take the time to recall it, notice how you feel, think about it the next day, and allow it to be transferred to your long-term memory. Negative events get encoded into long term memory more quickly and with far greater detail than positive events so we have to actually do some of the work ourselves to help the encoding process. Savour those positive moments, take a mental photograph and make a conscious effort to think about and recall them.

If you have any comments about this article or would like to talk to me about your own negative bias and how to make a shift, please contact me on your North Vancouver Registered Clinical Counsellor.

Thank you so much for reading!

Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

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