What is negativity bias?

Data Literacy Uncertainty and Misinformation

Tl;dr: Negative bias is a type of cognitive bias where we tend to have a stronger response to negative stimuli and information than positive information of equal magnitude. We feel negative events more intensely and may dwell on them to our detriment. Negativity bias impacts how we consume the news, engage in relationships with other people, and remember events.

Ever heard “If it bleeds, it leads?” This phrase is used to describe how negative and dark news stories get more clicks and larger audiences than stories that make us feel good. This is an example of negativity bias.
Negativity bias, also called positive-negative asymmetry, is a cognitive bias that prioritizes our attention and emotional response towards negative experiences over positive ones. This explains why we dwell on that one mean comment a friend said a year ago, why we can’t shake that bad first impression of someone who is objectively cool, and why traumatic events stick around for so long with crystal clarity but really happy events fade into blurriness.

Why do human beings have a negativity bias? One answer might be in evolution. People were more likely to survive if they paid attention to and remembered the dangerous threats in the world around them. It’s a safety mechanism that develops as early as infancy. Babies as young as three months of age begin to display a negativity bias.

The researchers who coined the term, Paul Rozin and Edward Poyzman, suggest that there are 4 key factors involved in negativity bias.

1️⃣ Negative potency: Both negative and positive events or memories may be equal in magnitude, but the negative ones are more memorable and have greater consequences. They stick around.

2️⃣ Steeper negative gradients: This refers to the emotional “slope of an event” that is coming up in the near future. The closer we get to an event we are dreading (like going to the dentist or having a hard conversation with a loved one), the more we feel the negative emotion. Whereas when we are looking forward to a positive event, the emotional buildup isn’t as strong.

3️⃣ Negativity dominance: This describes our tendency to view ambiguous events more negatively. Not sure how to feel about something? Our brain will probably put a negative spin on it.

4️⃣ Negative differentiation: Negative emotions can be more complicated than positive ones. This means we must put more cognitive energy into working out how to cope. This makes the experience more memorable and intense.

How does negativity bias impact us? Lots of ways!

👀 We pay more attention to negative events than positive ones. This explains the never-ending news cycle of bummers, bad news, and soul crushing coverage.

🧠 We learn more from negative outcomes and experiences. We are more likely to remember that one performance review criticism than all the positive feedback.

⚖️ We make decisions based on negative information more than positive information.

🤨 We are more likely to be risk averse when the risks and benefits may be equally likely.

📉 We are more motivated by negative consequences than positive ones.

What can we do to avoid negativity bias?

➡️ Be mindful: Intentionally notice when this is happening and call it out for what it is.

➡️ Take a breath: Mindful breathing, a form of meditation, can improve positive judgements and increase optimism!

➡️ Focus on the positive: Take a few minutes every day to focus on positive things and experiences. Write a gratitude journal, keep track of and share your accomplishments, and take time for pleasure and rest.

➡️ No more negative self-talk: Give yourself some grace! Instead of dwelling on mistakes, think about what you learned and what you might do differently in the future.

➡️ Reframe and balance: When something feels negative, try to find that silver lining. Don’t ignore the negative but try to find something positive as well.

➡️ Take a vacation from negativity: When you get caught in the negativity rut, step away and do something that brings you joy. Get some exercise, spend time with loved ones, or watch videos of unlikely animal friends. You do you!

Stay safe. Stay well.

Those Nerdy Girls


Negativity Bias from allsides.com

What Is the Negativity Bias? from verywellmind.com

Why is the news always so depressing? from The Decision Lab

Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development from NIH

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