Overcoming Your Negativity Bias


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Overcoming Your Negativity Bias

June 14, 2013 12:44 pmJune 17, 2013 8:39 am
Does this sound familiar? Youre feeling a bit uneasy say, a tightness in your chest or a rumbling in your stomach. You search your mind for the cause, and you think of something unsettling that happened in the office yesterday, a difficult conversation you need to have or a deadline youre facing on a project. Before you know it, worries are mounting in your mind, one feeding on the next.

Its a phenomenon called negativity bias. Over and over, Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, says, the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things. Or as Roy Baumeister, a fellow psychologist, puts it, Its evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good.

True enough, if theres a lion chasing you. Not so true sitting at your desk trying to work in a clear, focused way, which was precisely my goal on the recent morning that a succession of negative thoughts began to multiply in my mind.

Rather than follow their lead, I decided to interrupt my snowballing reverie. Saccharine as it may sound, I began to write down everything I was feeling grateful for in that moment. I got on a roll, and after just a couple of minutes, I was not only feeling remarkably better, but also far more able to concentrate on the task at hand.
Its a simple concept: we construct our internal reality our experience of the world in large part by where we put our attention. More often than we recognize, we can make that choice consciously and intentionally. Doing so influences not just how we feel, but also how we perform, individually and collaboratively. It turns out that cultivating positive emotions such as joy, contentment, interest, pride and love pays huge dividends.

Norman Vincent Peale published the The Power of Positive Thinking more than 60 years ago. More recent is the scientific evidence for how much better the brain and body operate when were feeling good, and what the specific costs are when were not.

Positive emotions broaden [our] scope of attention, cognition and action, and build physical, intellectual and social resources, says Barbara Fredrickson, a leading happiness researcher at the University of North Carolina. Mario Losada, a researcher, studied some 60 business teams and found that the ratio of positive to negative comments in the highest performing teams was 5.6 to 1. In medium performing teams it was 1.9 to 1 and in low performing teams it was .36 to 1, meaning three negative comments for every positive one.

We need to have teams within organizations that are able to tap into the liberating and creative power of positivity, Mr. Losada has written. The notion is not to become an uncritical Pollyanna but instead to practice realistic optimism. That means telling yourself the most hopeful and empowering story possible about any given situation without denying or minimizing the facts.
Learning to put your attention where it serves you best requires the same sort of deliberate practice necessary to build any new skill. The problem is that we grow up in a world that doesnt value the training of attention or the capacity to cultivate specific emotions.
A good starting place is simple self-awareness, because you cant change what you dont notice. For example, how are you feeling right now, in this moment? Start checking in with yourself several times a day especially when youre under pressure.
If there are negative feelings gnawing at you, do you know the cause, and is there anything you could do right away to solve the problem? If its just a negativity bias kicking in, try the exercise that worked so well for me. Get a piece of paper and spend two or three of minutes writing down anything youre especially grateful for in that moment. See what effect it has on how youre feeling.
If youre a manager or a leader, you carry an extra responsibility. By virtue of your authority, your emotions are disproportionately influential. When youre feeling worried, frustrated or angry, the people around you are going to pick it up not least because theyll be wondering whether theyre the cause. Is there someone on your team who is especially triggering you lately? Take a moment to think about the quality you most appreciate in that person to remember what it was that drew you to that person in the first place.
Heres the paradox: The more youre able to move your attention to what makes you feel good, the more capacity youll have to manage whatever was making you feel bad in the first place. Emotions are contagious, for better or worse. Its your choice.
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