The brain’s proclivity to be biased toward negative information, objects, and people can be explained from evolutionary, scientific, and sociological perspectives. In ancient times, human beings always faced the danger of attack from wild animals in their environment. In that regard, they were always alert and on the lookout for imminent threats that risked their survival. This alertness helped them survive and stay safe.
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Throughout the centuries, evolution has automated the bias that kicks in during the initial stages of the brain’s information processing loop. According to neuropsychologists, the tendency to respond faster and more robust to negative information or events is evolutionary. Sociologists argue that the phenomenon arises from social learning or conditioning. Neurologists suggest that the brain’s tendency to process types of information differently is responsible for people’s habit of focusing more on adverse outcomes than positive ones.
It is easier to dismiss good information as invalid and readily accepts negative information as worth one’s attention. Researchers have studied the phenomenon to understand why negative things have a more intense and lasting effect on an individual’s psychological state and process when compared to positive events and information.
Causes of Negativity Bias
The brain evolved the function toward negativity bias in order to enhance the survival of human beings and alert them to potential dangers in their environment. As mentioned earlier, the earliest human beings had to stay alert in order to stay safe from the risks of attacks from wild animals. They lived in jungles and had to defend themselves against the hundreds of dangerous animal species that they coexisted with. During those times, the significant aspects of human civilization like agriculture, fire, and wheels had not yet been developed. Therefore, their brains had to establish mechanisms to protect them and enhance their survival (Shermer, 2017).
The challenge of dealing with animals such as elephants and lions necessitated the evolution of brain functions to mitigate the challenge (Soroka, Fournier, & Nir, 2019). The dangers that were eminent in their environment made them anxious at all times. In contemporary society, the majority of these dangers have vanished. However, the tendency for negativity bias still exists. During ancient times, the human brain evolved predominantly to enhance the survival of the human race. During those times, worry and anxiety were defense mechanisms that protected individuals from harm (Shermer, 2017).
The threats that the ancient people encountered and the environment in which they lived has changed. However, the survival function that the brain evolved to mitigate the risks remains intact. Neuroscientists argue that individuals in today’s world have to contend with the fact that the brain has become for millions of years. Therefore, it is difficult to explain the origin, significance, or rationale behind the development of certain brain functions accurately. Evolutionary, negativity bias has an important diagnostic component that allows individuals to detect dangers, stay vigilant, and avoid adverse outcomes (Cacioppo, Cacioppo, & Gollan, 2014).
This explains why researchers in fields like neurology, psychology, and evolutionary biology have found out that negativity bias is a function that exists in all human populations around the globe and that influences their focus and attention in varying degrees.
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The Scientific Perspective
Many researchers have conducted studies to enhance their comprehension of the concept of negativity bias. One of them is John T. Cacioppo. He was a psychologist at the Ohio State University and also a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago. He argued that the reason why political smear campaigns are more effective at achieving political goals than positive ones is primarily due to the brain’s negativity bias (Cacioppo et al., 2014).
The harmful content in smear campaigns appeals more strongly to the brain than the positive content. In order to prove that the brain has an inbuilt mechanism that has greater sensitivity to unpleasant news, he conducted an experiment. In the study, he showed the participants pictures that evoke positive feelings, pictures that spur negative feelings, and images that do not produce any emotions (Berkovic, 2017).
During the experiment, he recorded the various electrical activities of the cortex that corresponded to the level of information processing happening as the emotions were evoked. The results of the study revealed that the brain’s reaction to stimuli that are processed as unfavorable is more intense than the reaction to positive stimuli (Berkovic, 2017). He concluded that people’s attitudes are more influenced by negative information as an evolutionary mechanism that was aimed at keeping people away from danger. The survival instinct might not be as significant as it was during ancient times. However, it is a critical component of the human brain that continues to influence various cognitive functions like reasoning, memory, attention, and perception.
A large portion of the early evidence that supports the existence of the brain’s negativity bias is derived from studies conducted on social judgments and the formation of impressions. In that regard, it has been concluded that negative information was applied more than positive news in the shape of evaluations and images of other people. In many cases, when people are offered trait information to describe others, they usually formulate unbalanced evaluations that represent inaccurate descriptions of the individuals. When the traits are different in terms of their negative and positive connotations, the negative characteristics have a more significant impact than the positive ones in the formation of an impression regarding an individual (Soroka et al., 2019).
This phenomenon can be explained based on the postulates of negativity bias. To provide evidence for this, a researcher is known as Leon Festinger conducted an experiment. In the study, he evaluated several factors that are critical in the formation of friendships. The results of the study conclude that the probability of two people becoming friends is primarily determined by how close they are to one another. Other researchers faulted the findings of the study by arguing that proximity is not a factor in the formation of friendships. Instead, it serves only to augment the information that people use to decide whether to form a company with someone or not. They argued that proximity amplifies positive and negative information in a similar manner. Therefore, it cannot be cited as the basis of friendship formation.
An explanation has been proposed to explain why negativity bias is widely experienced in people’s social judgments. In many cultures, negative descriptions are considered to be more accurate in diagnosing people’s characters than positive ones. Therefore, people are highly likely to use negative traits to describe others. People are more confident of their accuracy levels when their descriptions of others are based more on negative information than on positive information (Shermer, 2017).
For instance, a dishonest person can act honestly under certain situations and circumstances, even though the overall impression of their character is dishonesty. On the contrary, an honest person who randomly engages in illegal activities is likely to be reclassified as a dishonest person. His genuine principal character is overshadowed by the few acts of dishonesty that he commits. It can be concluded that people will rarely use honesty to diagnose a person’s character. Instead, they will use its absence because honesty can be quickly overshadowed by simple acts of dishonesty.
Politics is one of the areas that researchers have studied to show that negativity is more influential to brain patterns than positivity. Studies have revealed that voting patterns are significantly determined by negative information than positive information (Soroka et al., 2019).
For example, people are highly likely to vote against a candidate because an opponent supplies negative information that tarnishes their reputation or presents them in a different light than otherwise shown. On the other hand, people are less likely to vote for a candidate because positive information is given about their character or good deeds. Weaknesses are more potent than strengths in determining who the voters elect as their representative. Some researchers have argued that the use of negative traits to diagnose people’s characters could be a result of individual behavioral expectations (Shermer, 2017). Society expects people to exhibit positive characteristics. Therefore, the negative traits are unexpected, and when they appear, they have a more significant influence on the judgment process than positive traits.
Recent studies conducted in the areas of media systems, anthropology, and cultural psychology have cited culture as a possible cause for the differences in negativity bias observed among people. Studies have been previously conducted to evaluate cross-cultural variation in various phenomena related to psychology, such as self-esteem, optimism, and satisfaction. The results have shown that the levels of bias toward negativity exist.
For example, the US is one of the most optimistic counties in the West, while Japan is among the less happy countries in the East (Soroka et al., 2019). These differences in optimism can be attributed to cultural variations. Several explanations have been put forward to try and explain the source of the negativity bias. One hypothesis states that cultures react differently to anxiety-evoking future events. In that regard, the degree to which members of a particular culture are affected by future uncertainties determines their inclination to focus on negative information (Soroka et al., 2019). Other factors that could play a critical role include the tension between groups and political instability.
Social conditioning has been proposed as one of the reasons for the existence of brain negativity bias. In that regard, people’s inclination to focus more on negative than positive information could be a learned trait. This hypothesis suggests that the evolutionary and cultural-institutional accounts of negativity bias are not based on a conscious yearning to focus on negative information (Soroka et al., 2019).
Instead, they are based on an involuntary adaptation or learned predisposition to focus more on negative than positive information. This claim can be supported by existing literature on social learning and culture-gene coevolution (Soroka et al., 2019). Proponents of this hypothesis caution that people should not attribute variation in negativity to cross-cultural differences only. This caveat is based on the findings of studies that point toward gender and political ideologies as potential causes of the differences. They suggest that individual-level variables could be another cause of the differences.
The brain processes positive and negative information in different hemispheres and in varied ways. This can be used to explain the concept of negative differentiation. The amygdala uses more than 60% of its neurons to process negative information and turn it into long-term memories (Berkovic, 2017). Scientists have found out that negative data is processed more thoroughly than positive information, and it involves more thinking (Mosley, 2019). In that regard, news of adverse events wears off slowly, and therefore, is retained in the brain for more extended periods of time than positive news. Negative information imprints faster and lingers longer than positive information (Mosley, 2019).
This phenomenon is called positive-negative asymmetry, and it is caused by a plethora of chemical and biological factors (Myers, 2016). A distinguished economist, Daniel Kahneman, has studied this concept. He asked participants in an experiment to imagine either of two outcomes: winning $50 or losing $50. The amount of the money lost or gained is the same—however, the magnitude of the emotional response associated with the loss or gain varied. Participants who imagined losing $50 had more intense emotional reactions than those who imagined winning. Another reason for the deeper processing of negative information is neurological variance. These differences cause additional processing that causes variations in the handling of negative and positive news in various aspects of cognition such as memory, attention, and learning (Mosley, 2019).
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Negative information has been shown to attract more attention than positive information. For instance, it elicits more excellent orienting responses such as an increased heart rate, heightened eye blinking, various response latencies, and dilation of the pupil (Myers, 2016). Negativity bias is also studied through the use of reward and punishment in learning. For example, research has revealed that learning takes place faster and more effectively when incorrect responses are punished rather than rewarded (Mosley, 2019).
Incidental, recognition and intentional memories are also influenced by the quality of information. People are more likely to store and remember adverse events and circumstances than positive ones. The aforementioned outcomes can be attributed to the brain’s susceptibility to pay more attention to negative information, and therefore, the processing of such content is slower, and it lingers longer.
Several studies conducted on the concept of negativity bias have revealed that the human brain is predisposed to focus more on negative information than on positive news. Responses to negative experiences, outcomes and events are faster, stronger, and longer-lasting than those toward positive ones. This phenomenon has been primarily attributed to evolution. During ancient times, early human beings lived in constant fear of attacks from animals. Therefore, over time, their brains developed a mechanism to alert and keep them vigilant of the imminent dangers in their surroundings. The development of the survival instinct aided the human race to survive.
Though not as significant as during earlier times, the survival instinct influences human behavior in meaningful ways. Other factors that are responsible for disparities in negativity bias include social learning and cross-cultural differences. The variations observed in the degree of negativity bias among cultures can be attributed to social learning. Cultures respond to future uncertainties in different ways that determine whether people focus more on the positive or negative aspects of their lives.
Berkovic, E. (2017). Why does the brain love negativity? The negativity bias. Web.
Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S. & Gollan, J. K. (2014). The negativity bias: Conceptualization, quantification, and individual differences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(3), 309-310.
Mosley, W. (2019). True or false? How our brain processes negative statements. Web.
Myers, A. (2016). Different brain cells process positive and negative experiences. Web.
Shermer, M. (2017). What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known? Negativity bias. Web.
Soroka, S., Fournier, P., & Nir, L. (2019). Cross-national evidence of a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to the news. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(38), 18888-18892.