Open a news app, turn on the TV, or go on your favourite social media app and you’ll most likely be flooded by all sorts of negative or even downright depressing news. And even though you feel your mood degrading, you’ll most likely keep reading and reading until you’ll frustratedly exclaim “ugh, the world sucks!” Or have a chat with your friends and you might find yourselves glossing over the happy moments, while dwelling for hours on the negative ones. Intrinsically, we all know why: negative events are simply more attractive and engaging than positive ones.
But why is that they catch our attention more? In psychology, this effect is known as the negativity bias. And scientists believe that there’s an evolutionary reason for that. Positive stimuli tell us that life is good and we can relax. In contrast, negative stimuli usually signal a problem with the environment, a problem which could be life-threatening if not resolved fast. So these stimuli need to be able to elicit stronger responses compared to the positive ones, so they wake us up from the positivity stupor and help us survive when threats appear.
Of course, while this is a great explanation, it’s also difficult to test in practice why something has evolved. What we can test, however, is how negative and positive stimuli are represented in the brain. And depending on the brain areas in which the differences between the two appear, we can derive some conclusions about their function as well.
EEG studies (which look at the electrical activity of the brain), have found that negative stimuli recruit more resources compared to the positive ones, both in the early, as well as in the late attentional stages. In other words, this confirms that we are quicker to react to negative stimuli, not only at the behavioural level, but also at the neural level.
Additionally, fMRI studies have found increased blood flow in response to negative stimuli in the visual association cortex, as well as executive attention areas. Again, this points towards the fact that, at the neural level, negative stimuli engage our attention more, but also that they tend to elicit higher brain activation already in the visual processing stage.
What’s more, researchers have observed something peculiar. Normally, when the same positive stimulus is presented repeatedly, the response observed in fMRI decreased with each new presentation. But with negative stimuli, that doesn’t happen. On the contrary, the response actually increases. In other words, instead of becoming accustomed to them, we have stronger responses to these stimuli over time. This observation also fits with the idea that negative stimuli have a higher functional significance.
As is the case with many research findings, however, there are also studies which have found no difference in the processing of negative and positive stimuli. Unfortunately, they have some methodological issues, which make proper comparisons difficult. Some of them do not properly match the stimuli across all dimensions. For example, they might have used positive images which are more emotionally intense and negative images which are milder. Others have only looked at early visual processing areas, thus missing potential differences observed in the higher cortical areas. Nevertheless, it is important to mention them in order to provide a more complete picture and highlight the need for more well-designed research on this topic.
The health perspective
Beyond analyzing the neural representation of the negativity bias, there is another question to be addressed: how does this impact our emotional well-being and mental health? The answer is: it depends.
Negative stimuli definitely have an important functional significance and there is nothing pathological about that. To use an extreme parallel, people who do not feel any pain at all (i.e. suffering from congenital insensitivity to pain or congenital analgesia) are at higher risk of complications from things such as unnoticed fractures or infections, and can die younger. Extrapolating to more abstract experiences, we can generally talk about how negative experiences, such as failing an exam or being reprimanded for missing a deadline, teach us important lessons and help us grow.
On the other hand, the negativity bias can definitely become problematic when taken to the extreme. Only attending to negative stimuli and looking at everything through a negative framework can get us trapped in a downward spiral. It can give us a bleaker view of the world and of ourselves, and it can cause us to miss out on the good parts of life. In fact, some researchers even go as far as to conceptualize depression and anxiety as negativity bias disorders. However, it is currently unclear whether suffering from depression or anxiety leads to a higher negativity bias or vice versa.
On the bright side, even though you might find it difficult to tone it down, there is some hope for when you get older. Researchers have found that the negativity bias doesn’t remain constant throughout the lifespan. In fact, it diminishes with age.
On the neural side, EEG and fMRI studies similar to the ones mentioned above have also shown that neural responses to negative stimuli decrease with age, to the point that there is no difference anymore between negative and positive stimuli. So next time when your grandma tells you to take a chill pill, cause things aren’t as bleak as they seem, remember she’s not just trying to comfort you. Her brain is truly telling her that.
Breaking the negativity bias
Seeing the bright side of life when you’re older is great, but wouldn’t it be better if you could also see it now? As we’ve already mentioned, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the negativity bias: it protects you and it keeps you safe. But balance is always important. And with the world around us exploiting this bias for clicks and views, it’s good to be reminded of how we can get closer to this balance.
There are two main things which can help with that: thinking critically and taking action. The first one basically means reflecting on the content that you are consuming. Usually, many upsetting pieces of information can be reframed in a more neutral tone, which reduces the negative responses. Ask your questions such as: how does it make me feel? Are things really as bleak as the author presents them or are they framing them in such a way to elicit as strong an emotional response as possible? And even if things are not that great, is there some action you can take? This last question leads to the second step: take action. Maybe volunteer, try to raise awareness about a certain issue, donate money, or even just talk to your friends about it. Becoming involved in any manner tends to relieve the feeling of powerlessness and signals to your brain that you have attended to that particular threat, so it doesn’t have to keep bombarding you with it.
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Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of general psychology, 5(4), 323-370.
Carstensen, L. L., & DeLiema, M. (2018). The positivity effect: A negativity bias in youth fades with age. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 19, 7-12.
Norris, C. J. (2021). The negativity bias, revisited: Evidence from neuroscience measures and an individual differences approach. Social neuroscience, 16(1), 68-82.