How and When to Override Negativity Bias
Garrett Kincaid — Mar. 21, 2021
Negativity bias is a psychological phenomenon that has demonstrable effects on human behavior. It is our “propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information” (1).
There is a distinct evolutionary advantage to responding more quickly to and remembering more of negative experiences, but negativity bias doesn’t always work in our favor. If, one day, as a kid and in cold weather, you slip on ice and bonk your head, negativity bias helps you remember and learn from that experience so that, when you’re older, you can instinctively tread lighter over ice. However, this evolutionary advantage, which informs us how to avoid and recover from physical threats and negative social experiences, bleeds into other areas of life — into decisions or situations that shouldn’t be disproportionately affected by negative information — making it, simultaneously, maladaptive.
Negativity bias can cause us to be unnecessarily risk-averse or to just plain get down on ourselves for no good reason — down enough that even receiving equivalently good news wouldn’t bring us out of it.
Here, I’ll offer my ideas about the source of negativity bias and discuss when and how to override it.
One common manifestation of negativity bias is in finance. And finance, negativity bias is a maladaptive trait. (Darwin’s model of fitness is much different when applied to the markets.) It is irrational and detrimental for an investor to react disproportionately to negative events and information.
A simple example of this would be that of an investor hearing of an oil spill and selling all of their stock in that oil company. Sure, the price might dip following that information, but the rational investor would know that the oil spill likely has no real bearing on the intrinsic value of the company and that the stock price should return to its pre-oil-spill value, if not exceed it, in the future. The rational investor — one unaffected negativity bias (and, for the purpose of this example, one without moral qualms about an oil spill) — would certainly hold the stock and maybe even buy more after the price drops.
Whether it’s in investing, relationships, or athletics, we need to be aware of the inflated impact negative information or experiences can have on us and our decision-making.
So, where does this tendency come from, and when and how should it be overridden?
We measure success relative to our expectations.
Not all students with a 3.5 GPA in college are happy about it. Student A considers their 3.5 to be a failure because they expected to get a 4.0. How do you think Student B, who expected a 3.0 and earned a 3.5, feels, compared to Student A? Negativity bias suggests that an equally bad outcome would weigh more on one’s emotions and actions than an equally good one. In this GPA example, it’s safe to assume that Student A would be more disappointed by their 3.5 than Student B would be pleased by their 3.5.
The question we want to address is whether it is reasonable, rational, and productive for Student A to be disproportionally upset by the result of a 3.5.
We set standards for success with our expectations, so where should we draw that line? The important point for this conversation about negativity bias is the fact that we usually expect things to go well.
You’re likely only going to work at something if you have positive expectations for it, even if those expectations are long-term. If you expected to fail at something, you probably wouldn’t do it.
We need to consider both the magnitude of expectations (how far they are from the outcome) as well as their sign (positive or negative).
We have established two main claims:
- Success is measured by whether one exceeds their expectations and by how much
- We tend to set positive expectations for what we choose to do.
The origin of negativity bias is the very combination of those two facts. If we measure success by our expectations and rarely have negative expectations, then negative events will feel more severe because they are further form our expectations.
We want to approach success and avoid failure, even evolutionarily, but we should carefully choose the standard by which we evaluate success so that we do not behave irrationally on account of negativity bias.
Take a romantic relationship, for instance. That’s something for which both parties have positive expectations. You got together because you think you’ll be good together and because you want to stay together. How do those expectations change how you would respond to the negative event of a breakup? If you expect to be together forever, then being together for 1 year, 5 years, or even 20 years, would disproportionally feel like a failure. In that case, the outcome is separated by degrees of magnitude from your expectation.
We tend to have positive expectations, and that causes our negativity bias. But not all breakups are failures. Negative outcomes shouldn’t have such a tight grip on our thoughts and feelings.
The way to override negativity bias is twofold:
- Manage the magnitude: Revise your expectations
- Flip the Sign: Change how you classify outcomes
Setting Your Point of Reference
We can’t cancel out negativity bias by just lowering our expectations, and we can’t abandon our main metric for success, which is to compare outcomes to our expectations. So, we need to strike a balance.
Everyone will navigate this challenge in their own way, but here are some thoughts on how to maintain relative metrics for success while combatting the negative effects of negativity bias.
Revise your expectations. Instead of measuring outcomes based on your current expectations, measure them relative to your historical expectations. This protects your ability to define success while stripping negativity bias of its influence.
You could measure the state of our society, for instance, by comparing it to past states of our society, rather than to your current expectations. Have we progressed in the five years in the areas you expected to see progress? Maybe that is an indication of success. If, in that line of thinking, you come to view society as moving in the right direction, you may be more inclined to help shape it, rather than forsake it altogether as a failing endeavor because it’s currently so far from your expectations.
On an individual level, if your relationships, job, or location don’t meet your expectations, evaluate where you are relative to the expectations of five-years-younger you. Would your career or relationships exceed the expectations of that version of you? Maybe you are succeeding and there’s just some lag time between where you are and where you expect to be.
When we set expectations, we don’t expect ourselves to be where we are but somewhere different. So anytime you evaluate yourself on your current expectations, you’ll feel like you’re falling short. For any new goal or aspiration, set a timeline. And don’t consider where you are to be failure until the end of the time period you have allotted for that growth.
Change how you classify outcomes. Ask yourself whether you’re making progress, rather than focusing on how far you are from where you expect to be.
Instead of immediately and indiscriminately slapping the binary labels of “success” or “failure” on an outcome, take time to carefully choose your benchmark for evaluating the success. Set your point of reference and free yourself of negativity bias.