You can’t help being negative

negativity bias

Do you want the good news or the bad news? The fact is that whichever you choose, it’s the bad news that you are most likely to remember and act on.

That’s because we’ve evolved to respond far more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. Our primitive selves needed to react to danger, or die. Gradually our brains evolved to devote twice as many neurons to recognising, reacting to and remembering danger. This phenomenon is known as negativity bias.

So more than half of your drive is instinctively negative. Because of negativity bias, most people are more likely to choose an option that avoids a negative outcome over one which might lead to a positive result.

That’s great when you are avoiding a confrontation with a sabre-toothed tiger, but not so good in a business environment where we know that innovation and risk, not entrenchment and inertia, typically lead to success.

What is the impact of this predisposition? If we’re not aware of this hard-wired caution, we tend to focus on the things that went wrong, not the things that did well. We skip past the wins and dwell on the losses. We over-emphasise errors and under-value success. We avoid saying what we really think in case our colleagues ‘take our comments to heart’. We look to mitigate risk rather than seek out opportunity. Ultimately, we put the growth of our business at risk through our instinctive negativity bias.

I see this manifested in the behaviour of leaders and managers who are otherwise positive and effervescent characters: meetings tend to focus solely on the failures and problems; they can rush past great achievements as if they were inevitable and grab at the next issue; they can develop very fixed opinions about specific members of staff (and everything they do seems to reinforce their opinion).

It’s in your hard wiring, but you can do something about it. Here are three things to keep top of mind:

  1. Find a way to be more open. At Waypoint Partners we’re able to speak openly and honestly because we all know that the observations are coming from a positive place. We hear criticism as constructive input and we give our opinions candidly. Quality of Mind coaching has really helped us with this.
  2. Recognise & celebrate success. Genuinely pause and reflect on things that go well. Take joy in them and then pick them apart with as much rigour as you would a lost pitch or an apparently snide comment. Unpack what helped create the success and find a way to do that more often. Learn from the good as well as the bad.
  3. Challenge your own bias. You now know negativity bias exists, so be more aware and take steps to mitigate it. One good exercise we use is to regularly stop and list what has gone well. Without fail, everyone is surprised by how much has been done and how far we have come.

I’ve found researching negativity bias fascinating. There is a wealth of reference material online. Blake Thorne gives a particularly good summary in his article, Why Your Brain is Negativity Bias and How to Fix It.


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If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.