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We all have a story to tell.

  • Writer's pictureBarb Drummond

Why so negative?

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

I have a friend and mentor, Natalie Hale, who has a phrase that often comes to mind when I am teaching or speaking to clients and teachers. "Go in through the heart and teach to the brain." (Hale, 2016)

Her quote means more to me now than ever before...

Our current climate feels so negative despite the fact that we have so much positive out there in the world. So, why so negative?

Of course Natalie's philosophy is promoting the positive bias in teaching children how to read - meaning that if, "we offer reading material that totally floats their boat; and we design that material so the brain can easily perceive and retain it." (Hale, 2016, p.43)

But what if we could we simply apply her idealism to our everyday lives and change the current climate?

If only it were that easy...

Well, our brains are wired for negativity. In fact, hardwired in. "Negativity bias" is the term. It refers to our disposition or our inclination to learn from negative information far more than from positive information.

How unfortunate is that?

Negativity bias may have been helpful 3,217 years ago..well, not exactly THAT many years ago but thousands of years ago..negativity bias would have helped human survival against predators and potentially harmful situations. These days that hardwired mind set negativity bias may do more harm than good.

Think of your typical day. How much time is spent on news media and social media? How much is negative? News coverage, for the most part, is negative. Why is that?

In our communities, provinces, and countries around the world...negative news appears to dominate the media outlets, but why? Perhaps negative coverage is more attention grabbing than positive coverage. A study is not required for that hypothesis..just reflect on what you see day to day.

Sensationalism sells.

Are viewers to blame? Are we, in a sense, asking for this type of news because negative bias is within us innately? Soroka (2017) study results examined just that..whether the demand for negative information is a cross-national occurrence. His results revealed that on average, across the globe, humans are more "aroused" by and "attentive" to negative news. Somehow, we need to change what we crave in the news. Perhaps we are the ones leading the journalists towards the conventional wisdom of, "if it bleeds, it leads"!

Negativity bias means that in our day-to-day experiences, we recall and think about insults and complaints more than the compliments and kudos. Even when we experience numerous good events in one day, negativity bias can cause us to focus on the sole ‘bad thing’ that occurred. It can lead us to ruminate on small things, worry over having ‘made a bad impression,’ and linger on negative comments and the like (Lupfer et al., 2000; Chen & Lurie, 2013; Wisco et al., 2014).

We have certainly experienced this at our restaurants ..we could have one thousand customers through the doors who leave happy, yet at the end of the day, all that we focus on is that ONE guest complaint.

We respond both, emotionally and physically (psycho-physiologically), to adverse or negative experiences. In fact, we tend to dwell on this. Traumatic events remain with us much longer than calming ones. With our media scrolling, we tend to see and acknowledge (hit like or haha) on the soothing, funny and touching posts..however, we tend to stop, read and focus on the negative, horrific posts. Perhaps, even taking the time to read through the thread of comments and add our own two cents.

When I think of this in the sense of memory and learning, I find it rather concerning...the more attention we give to a negative experience, the higher the likelihood that we will commit it to memory. This in turn will have adverse effects on self-esteem, anxiety, depression and relationships. Educators and health professionals have understood this in the last decade and it is why we see lessons and conferences teaching mindfulness, in hopes to change that negativity bias.

We may be hardwired to the negativity bias but with what we know about neuro-plasticity we CAN re-train the brain.

How do we apply Natalie's philosophy "Go in through the heart and teach to the brain" in order to shift from negativity bias to a positivity bias?

Firstly, stop scrolling by the soothing calm and funny posts..stop and take it in! When you stop and take some time to ‘drink in’ a positive experience, you’re savoring it and creating memories for the future (Bryant & Veroff, 2017). Building up your store of positive mental images and feelings helps you address the imbalance that negativity bias predisposes us to (Perimutter, 2019).

My husband is famous for saying, "be a healthy skeptic!" He is correct. When you read and watch media coverage, be a healthy skeptic. Put what you read into context, is this accurate?, is it true?, is there more to the story?, did you truly THINK about what you read?, what is the date of the article?, think of the motivation behind the article. Question your beliefs periodically. What are the facts on which your opinions are built? There are a lot of bright people out there who are sharing and making comments that truly were NOT thought through and end up contributing to the bias by feeding into the negative environment. It disheartens me.

Secondly, counteract the negative with the positive. One of my former students, in the midst of all the negative posts, counteracted with a positive post - I made sure to comment on his heartfelt words...his type of posts are what we need.

With so many opinions and data points floating around these days, it’s so easy to find confirmation for basically any opinion. This makes it all the more important to create strategies to lessen the negative impact of this bias on our thinking. We need to break the cycle and start a new one with a positive bias.

Thirdly, we can start reducing the harmful effects of negativity bias by limiting our consumption at the source. It is one thing to be informed, but quite another to expose yourself to sensationalized negativity for hours a day... have you checked your screen time lately?..(admittedly, I turned mine off at the beginning of COVID isolation)! Recently, I have taken a phone fast so-to-speak..limiting what I view on media, ignoring click bait titles and if I do read something negative... share it with my husband, Gordon. I trust his level headed feedback. We discuss the content and discern the validity and credibility of what we just read. Gord says, "give it the litmus test to see if it holds up." One of our daughters applies "the validity, the reliability and repeatability" test to what she reads.

Lastly, we all face rejection, sadness, fear, or unhappiness at some point in our lives. Yet, now knowing that we are wired hold negativity bias... let's be cognizant of it and purposefully counteract it!

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe we need to rid of negative news in its entirety..we need this news to be aware of the bad going on in the unite together, to grieve together learn from it..because when you know better you do better!

“Positive and negative news stories should not compete, but co-exist,” said Jackson (2016). “We need to notice achievements alongside failings in order to understand the world more accurately.”

We may be evolutionarily hard-wired to focus on negative things, but with practice and significant input from us social media hounds...we need to re-train our brains to lower that negativity bias.

"Go in through the heart and teach to the brain."

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