Negativity bias is the psychological phenomenon by which humans have a greater recall of unpleasant memories compared with positive memories. People are seen to be much more biased to the avoidance of negative experiences. They seem to behave in ways that will help them avoid these events. With this, humans are much more likely to recall and be influenced by the negative experiences of the past.
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The capacity to put more weight on negative entities than positive ones likely evolved for an important reason: to keep us out of harm’s way. From the beginning of humanity it has been our most important survival skill to be able to stay away from or dodge danger. Knowing this survival technique, our brain has developed systems that make it hard for us to not notice danger and respond to it.
The concept of negativity bias is not new. The earlier research on this phenomenon led to the development of the prospect theory. The prospect theory evaluates the ways people make choices when there is a known risk. Both negativity bias and the derived prospect theory coincide with the idea that “people are much more likely to choose things based on their need to avoid negative experiences, rather than on their desire to get positive things”.
This phenomenon has recently been researched by psychologists Roy F. Baumister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer. These psychologists found that negative experience, or fear of bad events has a greater impact on people than do neutral or positive experiences. Their findings were published in 2001 and can be found in the Review of General Psychology in the article “Bad is Stronger than Good”. In the same year, another paper with almost exactly the same findings was published by Rozin and Royzman titled "Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion".
According to Rozi and Royzman, there are four ways in which humans and animals show to give greater weight to negative entities. These four aspects are negative potency, steeper negative gradients, negativity dominance, and negative differentiation. Negative potency is that negative entities are stronger than the equivalent positive entities. Steeper negative gradient means that the negativity of these negative events grows more rapidly with space or time than positive events. With negativity dominance, “combinations of negative and positive entities yield evaluations that are more negative than the algebraic sum of individual subjective valences would predict.” And finally, negative differentiation is that negative entities are more varied, yield more complex conceptual representations, and engage a wider response range. In their paper they seem to focus more on negativity dominance and on the idea that negative are more contagious than positive ones.
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- One study was done by John Cacioppo, a Ph.D. professor formerly at Ohio State University. His study entailed showing participants pictures of either positive, negative, or neutral objects. These pictures whether a Ferrari (positive), a mutilated face (negative), or a hair dryer (neutral) all were known to arouse certain feelings. While showing participants these pictures he measured the electrical activity on the brain’s cerebral cortex. Cacioppo found that the brain reacted more strongly to the stimuli that was “negative.” This meaning, in the terms of electrical activity in the brain, that there was a greater electrical surge in electrical activity. This proved that our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat than good news.
- The use of social media for large organizations demonstrates the negativity bias. McDonalds used Twitter to get customers to tell their favorite stories of their experiences with the restaurant . Out of the 79,000 tweets about McDonalds, 2,000 were negative. Even though 97.5% of the tweets had a positive sentiment, most of the headlines focused on the failure of the campaign.
- Hamlin et al. researched three-month olds and found that they process negativity just as adults do. This suggests that the negativity bias is instinctual in humans and not a conscious decision.
- Researchers found that the negativity bias is noticeable during the work day. Amabile studied professionals and looked at what made their day good or bad. The findings showed that when professionals made even the slightest step forward on a project, their day was good; however, a minor setback resulted in a bad day. Furthermore, Amabile found that the negative setbacks were more than twice as strong as the positive steps forward when relating to the individual’s happiness that day.
- Researchers examined the negativity bias with respect to reward and punishment. The findings conclude that faster learning develops from negative reinforcement rather than positive reinforcement.
- Researchers analyzed language to study the negativity bias. There are more emotional words in the human dictionary that are negative. One study in particular found that 62% of the emotional words were negative and 32% were positive. Seventy-four percent of the total words in the English language describing personality traits are negative.
- Researchers studied facial expressions in order to study the negativity bias. Participants’ facial expressions were monitored as they were exposed to pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant odors. The results show that the participant’s negative reactions to unpleasant odors were stronger than the positive reactions to the pleasant odors. Researchers also tested negativity bias with children as the participants with respect to facial expressions. Children perceived both negative and neutral facial expressions as negative.
Research suggests many explanations behind the negativity bias. Listed below are several explanations ranging from small to large instances of information integration. Each of these tries to clarify why negativity biases occur. However, future research must be conducted in order to fully understand the causation of humans’ negative mindset.
Selective attention: Research shows that people pay more attention to negative issues. Because humans can only focus on one message at a time, due to selective attention, the negative message becomes more profound.
Retrieval and accessibility: Some studies found some negativity biases to appear only over time. This demonstrates how memory places an important role in negativity bias. Throughout the retrieval process, negativity biases arise. People retain the impression of information rather than the features of the information. Also, because negative experiences and memories are more distinct in one’s mind, they are retrieved more rapidly and therefore more easily accessible.
Definitiveness: Humans rely heavily on distinguishing features from an object. For example, when talking about cars, people rely on the features that make a certain car stand out from another car. However, when this effect is applied to perception of people, it is the negative traits that stand out. Normal traits of people tend to be positive traits, so when perceiving other people, humans rely heavily on the negative appearances such as a big nose or a round tummy.
The judgment process: People weigh negative information more than positive information because that is how they think it should be weighed. It makes sense to people to think in negative terms.
The figure–ground hypothesis: There are many happy people in the world and most people expect and report high levels of personal happiness. People evaluate others in a positive way, and this makes it easier for the more negative information to stand out so much.
Novelty and distinctiveness: Negative information is more distinctive and more novel compared to positive information. The fact that it has more novelty means that it will be remembered more and more easily recalled. The fact that it is more distinctive means that it will be more distinguishable among different objects. If the negative information eliminates its surprisingness or informativeness it will reduce the impact of the negative information.
Credibility: Negative information is more credible than positive information. Because there is a strong normative pressure to say positive things, the person who says something negative is the one who is more likely to seem sincere.
Interference effects: Humans have a very hard time enjoying the positive attributes of an object or event when there is a negative attribute clinging to that same object or event. For example, if an iPhone screen is cracked, then it is a cracked iPhone and no longer as valuable as it was before being cracked.
In the brain, there are two different systems for negative and positive stimuli. The left hemisphere, which is known for articulate language, is somewhat specialized for positive experiences; whereas, the right hemisphere focuses more on negative experiences. Another area of the brain used for the negativity bias is the amygdala. This specific area of the brain uses about two-thirds of its neurons searching for negative experiences. Once the amygdala starts looking for the bad news, it is stored into long-term memory. Positive experiences have to be held in awareness for more than twelve seconds in order for the transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory to take place. We remember more after we hear disapproving or disappointing news than before; this shows how the brain processes criticism. As a result, Cliff Nass, professor of communication from Stanford University has suggested managers offer praise after criticism, not before, so that the praise actually makes an impression on the receiver. Implicit memory registers and responds to negative events almost immediately. It takes five to twenty seconds for positive experiences to even register in the brain. Emotional information revolves within the limbic system. Therefore, the limbic system ties perfectly into the negativity bias. Furthermore, the limbic system can become overloaded with negative information and in turn takes control of the brain. The neocortex is responsible for maintaining higher level cognitive processes. A person uses the neocortex when trying to control the negative symptoms dispersed from the limbic system. Based on the connection between the limbic system and the nervous system, the body reacts harshly when solely speaking about negative events.
- Loss aversion
- Negativity effect
- Positivity effect
- Positivity offset
- Cognitive bias
- List of biases in judgment and decision making
- Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
- Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 296-320.
- Cacioppo, J. T., Gardner, W. L., & Berntson, G. G. (1997). Beyond bipolar conceptualizations and measures: The case of attitudes and evaluative space. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1, 3-25. doi: 10.1207/s15327957pspr0101_2
- Schaefer, Mark. "We are all standing on digital quicksand". Retrieved October 11, 2013.
- Hamlin, J. Kiley et al. "Three-month-olds show a negativity bias in their social evaluations", Developmental Science, Vol 13, Number 6. 2010. pp 923-929. USA. Retrieved on 2012-10-02.
- Tugend, Alina (23 March 2012). "Praise Is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 October 2012.
- Haizlip, Julie et al. "Perspective: The Negativity Bias, Medical Education, and the Culture of Academic Medicine: Why Culture Change Is Hard". Retrieved October 3, 2012.
- Bosman, Manie. "You Might Not Like it, But Bad is Stronger than Good". Retrieved 9 October 2012.
- Tottenham, N.; Phuong, Flannery, Gabard-Durnam, & Goff (August 2012). "A Negativity Bias for Ambiguous Facial-Expression Valence During Childhood: Converging Evidence From Behavior and Facial Corrugator Muscle Responses". Emotion. doi:10.1037/a0029431.
- Kanouse, David. "Explaining Negativity Biases in Evaluation and Choice Behavior: Theory and Research". Retrieved October 25, 2012.
- Retrieval and accessibility
- The figure–ground hypothesis
- Hanson, Rick. "Confronting the Negativity Bias". Retrieved 8 October 2012.
- Tugend, Alina (23 March 2012). "Why People Remember Negative Events More Than Positive Ones". The New York Times.
- Moon, Tom. "Are We Hardwired for Unhappiness?". Retrieved October 25, 2012.
- Manley, Ron. "The Nervous System and Self-Regulation". Retrieved October 25, 2012.
- Early negativity bias occurring prior to experiencing of emotion: An ERP study. Dong, G. et al. (2011)
- How to change things when things are hard. Written by: Chip Heath and Dan Heath
- Bad is Stronger Than Good Article
- A note on negativity bias and framing response asymmetry. Sonsino, D. (2011)