Part 1: The Negativity Bias Affects Us All

Part 2: How Can We Build Up Our Resilience? 

Part 3: How Does SOCIAL STYLE Affect Our Resilience? 

The Negativity Bias Affects Us All

The negativity bias lives in our brain, and it affects us all—humans are simply wired to focus more on the negative than the positive. Negative things have more of an impact on us than the positive things that happen to us.

Here’s an example:

Think about a time when you had a disagreement with someone: maybe a friend, partner or co-worker. When that happens, it really sticks with you. It bothers you, and you think about it a lot. More so than the positive interactions you’ve had with that person. It simply carries more weight.

That’s the negativity bias in action. Research shows it takes between three and five positive interactions with that person to overcome just one negative interaction.

Who Falls Victim to the Negativity Bias?

The negativity bias actually serves a purpose: it’s our brain’s way of warning us of danger.

When something unexpected happens and startles us, we all know what that feels like. That’s your negativity bias preparing you to deal with the situation. You’ve probably heard of the fight-flight-or-freeze response.

The problem is, we don’t have the kinds of physical dangers around us most of the time that were around when our brains were first developing. The bias has outgrown its usefulness most of the time. Today we perceive more psychological dangers, such as feeling disrespected or ignored, causing us to spend a lot of time worrying.

Research, however, shows that 90 percent of all the things we worry about never actually happen. And when they do happen, they turn out better than we expected. We spend lots of unnecessary time worrying about the future and obsessing about the past, which affects our ability to solve problems and adapt to change to get through our day-to-day lives.

It’s Important to Understand the Negativity Bias

Understanding our negativity bias is job one. It lives outside of our awareness, running behind the scenes and affecting our moods and our mindset. We don’t even know it’s happening, and that’s what makes it especially insidious. We focus only on things we think are going wrong, instead of being more objective, rational and productive, which makes it harder for us to adapt quickly and effectively to change.

A significant portion of what’s going on in our minds, including the negativity bias, is within our control. Most people just don’t realize it. We inherited the negativity bias, but we can manage it through our own thinking and reactions.

What Can I Do When It Triggers?

It’s hard to stop this bias from triggering because it’s so automatic, happening faster than you can snap your fingers.

The first step is to recognize when it happens. Catch yourself in the moment. Slow down. Pause to acknowledge what you’re thinking, and challenge whatever it is you’re telling yourself: Are my beliefs helpful in this moment? Are these thoughts realistic? What effects are they having on me?

Then choose a new way forward, which engages your prefrontal cortex, the logical, rational part of the brain. This helps to temper and soothe the emotional part of your brain, bringing you to a place where you can calmly move forward in a more realistic and helpful way.

How Does TRACOM Measure the Negativity Bias?

Research shows there are six different patterns of the negativity bias.

For example, one of them is called “catastrophizing.” That’s when something happens, and you expect the worst possible outcome. Say there’s a change or reorganization that’s introduced at your workplace, and you automatically begin thinking it’s going to lead to layoffs. That’s catastrophizing, thinking the worst possible outcome: that you’re going to lose your job.

Another pattern of the negativity bias is called “internalizing.” That’s when you take more blame than you should. For example, you’re a salesperson and you don’t meet your quota, so you blame yourself for that. Even when some of the reasons you didn’t meet your quota were completely out of your control—economic factors, changes in your client’s organizations—you take on more blame than you should.

These are two examples of different patterns the negativity bias can take. To measure this, TRACOM’s survey shows people different scenarios and asks how they would respond.

For example, when I worry about the future, which of these six options relate to me most often when I think about that? We offer six choices, one for each pattern of negativity bias, and when the person answers a number of those different scenarios, we get a reliable measure of their primary negativity bias—the one they usually default to.

Based on that, we generate a profile for them detailing their negativity bias pattern and how it affects them during times of stress. Then, of course, TRACOM’s Adaptive Mindset for Resilience training teaches them what they can do to counteract that negativity bias pattern.


By Casey Mulqueen, Ph.D.

Director of Learning & Development