Negativity Bias - Sweeping Heart Zen

Negativity Bias

The day after the last big snow, as I drove out of Gloucester on my way to yoga, traffic was light and unhurried.  Scenes refreshingly beautiful replaced the grimy, tattered, roadside landscapes of mid March on Route 128. My mindful-driving practice was humming along with my car’s heater. I was right there, right then, joyful and warm.

Big Impression

As I turned into the road that turned into the yoga studio parking lot, I realized a car was about to exit. However, this car was not exiting from its own lane.  It was mostly in mine.  And as I slowed to squeak by, my eyes locked with the driver’s and, I smiled a broad grin. Next, much to my amazement, his gentle, middle aged, mustachioed face twisted into an angry grimace. He tossed me the f-bomb… and flipped me the bird.

Don’t think that didn’t make an impression.

In fact, even today, almost a month later, I can still see the driver’s face. I can see his salt and pepper mustache, and the color of his eyes in the rerun theater of my mind. Why? In the scientific literature, this default propensity of our brain to accentuate the negative and erase the positive is called “negativity bias”. You can learn more about it here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negativity_bias.

Negativity Bias

Here’s what Rick Hanson, PhD, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Inner Peace, recommends to consciously ameliorate negativity bias:

“[F]or starters, be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert. And wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information … to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive.”

Here’s the link to Rick’s post on negativity bias: http://www.rickhanson.net/how-your-brain-makes-you-easily-intimidated/

The bad news is we are more deeply influenced by negative than positive impressions. Yet, knowing this can help us.  We can notice that our fretting and fearing are often rooted, not in any actual present danger, but in our biology. Furthermore, knowing we are subject to negativity bias can help us focus on the problem or crisis at hand, and less on the (sometimes paralyzing) fear we might be feeling in the face of the problem.

In my next post, I’ll write about how we can use our knowledge of negativity bias to make progress in our meditation practice and to enhance our quality of life. Additionally, I’ll point you to other bloggers you may find helpful as well.

Very best wishes,

Mark