Everything You Need To Know About Negativity Bias

Helen Lee Bouygues

Like most people, you can probably remember very clearly the times a classmate hurled an insult at you in school. You can probably even remember that classmate’s name, what they looked like, and how they made you feel. Over the years, you likely have also received countless compliments and kudos from peers, loved ones, teachers – maybe even strangers. Yet those affirmations often blur in our memories, remain faceless, and difficult to recall with specificity.

Why do people focus on the insults and not the praise? 

The answer lies in a common cognitive bias: Negativity bias. As the name suggests, our brains are more likely to react–and overreact–to negative information versus positive. Similarly, we also naturally spend more time dwelling on negative memories than we do on positive recollections. Our brains seem wired to work this way, and can make our perception of the world around us skewed to the negative unless we actively work to counteract this natural tendency. 

Examples of negativity bias are everywhere: A terrible restaurant experience is more likely to be remembered than a neutral one. Traumatic experiences are more readily recalled than joyous vacations. The news headlines that get the most clicks and shares emphasize the most negative aspects of a story.

So how do our brains become hardwired to be so, well, pessimistic? And what can we do about it? 

The researchers who identified negativity bias, Paul Rozin and Edward Pozyman, detailed its four elements: negativity potency; negativity differentiation; negativity dominance; and steep negative gradients. 

Negative Potency: Sports fans are a great example of negative potency, which might be summed up by the phrase “What have you done for me lately?” The basketball star who is praised by his coach and teammates for winning a game on Monday might be stung by criticism for poor play after the next game. The athlete feels the negative feedback more acutely than the recent accolades because the emotional potency of a positive event or memory is overcome by our feelings about a negative event or memory. 

Negativity Differentiation: Imagine a picture-perfect day. A stroll in the park, a great lunch, and a chat with a friend. Now imagine a day where you have a car accident. After the panic, there are calls to the insurance company, the cost of repairs, and the inevitable paperwork. By their nature, negative events are generally far more complicated for us to process and manage than positive ones. Because they are more complex, they feel more intense and therefore have a larger stake in our memories. 

Negativity Dominance: Negative emotions and memories overtake positive ones, even when we are looking at a complex event that has both components. If you are responsible for organizing a week-long work conference and the keynote speaker dropped out at the last minute and the A/V vendors mistakenly misconfigured the expo hall, we might view the whole conference as an overall negative experience, even if participants and sponsors loved it. When negativity dominates, we perceive the negative components more significantly than the positive ones. 

Steep Negative Gradients: This aspect of negativity bias centers around our perception of negative events as they approach (or our perceived emotional slope of an event). Our apprehension of an upcoming surgery, for example, typically increases at a faster rate as the day approaches. The slope of the increasing anxiety is steep. Conversely, our positive feelings for an upcoming vacation may also increase as the date approaches, but will typically not increase at the same rate as it would for a negative experience. 

In business, negativity bias can impact everything from strategic decision-making to managing teams. Negativity bias can make corporate leadership more risk averse, perceiving a potential monetary loss as much more significant than the potential gain–even if the odds are equal. In performance reviews, a team’s mistakes stand out in a manager’s memory much more strongly than what is considered the “norm”–everyday performance that’s on par with, or even exceeding, expectations. 

In business, negativity bias can impact everything from strategic decision-making to managing teams. 

At the Reboot Foundation, we have developed a critical thinking framework called SHARP, that can help fight a host of cognitive  biases. SHARP stands for: Stop, Hone, Accumulate, Reason, and Perspectivize. Part reflection, part reasoning, part creativity, SHARP thinking empowers people to engage in better decision making and helps them balance out impactors like negativity bias.

Stop: The first step in counteracting a cognitive bias is to accept that it exists. When reflecting on a day at work or a year in performance, it’s important to think about all the ways cognitive biases may sway your thinking and decisions. 

Hone: By asking questions, we can present new opportunities to our own brains and others’ that may counteract gut reactions or emotions. For instance, if we are addressing a challenging event, can we ask more questions about what went well to balance the negative perception? Are we able to stop ourselves from swirling around the apprehension of an upcoming event by asking ourselves what possible alternatives there may be to our foregone conclusions?

Accumulate: This is the step where research and fact-based information come into play. Was the conference a major failure because the keynote speaker didn’t appear? What evidence backs this? What evidence contradicts this? 

Reason: Once we’ve done the work of asking questions to combat cognitive bias, this is the step that pulls together the evidence and answers to those honing questions in order to assist in impartial reflection. How do we gather information and evaluate it clearly to come to a balanced conclusion, instead of letting our negativity bias take over? 

Perspectivize: The steps above should provide an opportunity to widen our perspective about any given situation, and then apply that perspective to new, challenging situations in the future. 

By routinely applying the SHARP methodology and other critical thinking skills to events in our lives–personally and professionally–we are able to build a deeper understanding of our own cognitive biases. Most importantly, we are well on our way to combating them, no matter how hardwired our negativity bias might be these days.  


Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay updated on the latest research an information about critical thinking!