No.29 What is the Negativity Bias?

No.29 What is the Negativity Bias?

The negativity bias is the notion that things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on one's psychological state than neutral or positive things.

Unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions (harmful or traumatic events) have a greater effect on one's psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.

The Negativity Bias in consumer environments

The negativity effect, or the greater weighing of negative as compared with equally extreme positive information in the formation of overall evaluations, is widely believed by media planners and appears to be a well-proven phenomenon in consumer psychology. [ref]

What is the Negativity Bias?

Have you ever felt stuck thinking about unpleasant encounters you’ve had? Do you ever dwell on the setbacks you’ve endured, whether personal or business related? When you read the news, do you find yourself drawn to the more depressing articles? 

If the answer to any of the above is ‘yes’, you’ve experienced the negativity bias. 

As humans, we tend to be impacted much more by negative events than by positive ones, which means greater influences on how we feel, think, and act. It can often explain why we:

  • React more strongly to insults than compliments;
  • Spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about unpleasant or traumatic events than pleasant ones
  • Focus more quickly on negative information as opposed to positive

Even when we’ve had a generally positive day, filled largely with positive events, the negativity bias can cause us to focus on the sole ‘bad thing’ that occurred. It can lead us to overthink small things and become anxious or paranoid about our behaviour. Most commonly, this psychological phenomenon is at the centre of worries over making a bad impression.

‍Where did the Negativity Bias come from?

This bias most probably evolved as a survival technique. Assuming the worst of a potentially dangerous situation that turns out not to be dangerous is much safer than being overconfident and faced with unexpected danger.

Survival instinct at the route of negativity bias

This psychological phenomenon explains why bad first impressions can be so difficult to overcome and why past traumas can have such long-lasting effects. In almost any interaction, we are more likely to notice negative things and later remember them more vividly.

Research into the Negativity Bias

Negative stimuli

A 1998 study by Ito and colleagues found that we respond more to negative stimuli. The researchers presented photos to 33 participants and measured their brain’s electrical activity to study their responses. 

Some images were considered neutral (e.g. a plate), some were considered positive (people having fun) and some were considered negative (e.g. a gun). 

Ito’s findings showed more brain activity when participants viewed negative images as opposed to positive images. This led the researchers to conclude that the human brain is more strongly influenced by negative stimuli.

News coverage

Negative news articles dominate the media, but why are they so prevalent? An international 2019 study by Soroka and colleagues found that, globally (results from 17 countries), people are more attentive to negative news than positive news.

Negative thoughts

A 2009 paper by Larsen reviewed evidence that suggests negative emotions last longer than positive ones...

To put this into context, think about your last break-up. How long did it take you to get over that failed relationship? A week, a few months, maybe even years. Now compare that with a positive relationship event; an anniversary, birthday or engagement. How long does that feeling of euphoria last for? I’m inclined to say you don’t walk around on cloud 9 for months on end, but rather that happiness lasts for the duration of a celebration and a little beyond, before you return to a neutral state and continue with your everyday life. 

The Negativity Bias in consumer environments

The negativity effect, or the greater weighing of negative as compared with equally extreme positive information in the formation of overall evaluations, is widely believed by media planners and appears to be a well-proven phenomenon in consumer psychology. [ref]

‍Brands can use negativity bias to their own advantage and also to the detriment of competing brands, both in-store and online. The negativity bias can have a powerful impact on shopping behaviour, and being aware of it means that you can take steps to create more engaging and memorable brand touchpoints. Below are 3 top tips:

1. Negative stimuli

Shoppers will pay more attention to and react more strongly to negative stimuli. Example: ‘Kills all known germs!’

2. Negative memories

Present negative scenarios before highlighting the fact that your product/service can avoid or solve these scenarios. For example, paint the picture of a child falling off their bike and breaking their arm, then present your knee and elbow pads as their saviour! Tapping into negative memories can raise powerful emotions, but do so with caution.

3. Bad news sells

It’s a fact that shoppers cannot help but pay more attention to negative headlines. There's something about our innate morbid curiosity that gets the better of us! 

Negative news grabs attention

Can we overcome the negativity bias?

Since the negativity bias is concerned with where we direct our attention, we can learn to avoid it by training ourselves to focus more energy, attention and time on the positive events and feelings we experience. We, as humans, are hard-coded to fall victim to the negativity bias, so training your brain to think otherwise takes practice...

Step 1: Self-Awareness 

By consciously checking up on yourself throughout the day, you can start to recognise the types of thoughts that run through your mind. In doing so, you can begin to eliminate negative thoughts and feelings by consciously challenging negative self-talk.

You can also monitor your own behaviours too and start to tackle these head-on, replacing them with more useful ones. Once you become aware of your behaviour and its consequences, you can work backwards to think about what led to them. This will allow you to change thought processes and pathways that used to lead to negative outcomes. 

Step 2: Mindfulness

Practicing your breathing and meditating are great ways to become more attuned to your own emotions. A 2011 study by Kiken and Shook, found an increase in positive judgments and higher levels of optimism when participants practiced mindful breathing.

Step 3: Cognitive restructuring

When you catch yourself taking a negative view of situations, try to think ‘on the bright side’. Train yourself to practice cognitive restructuring by reframing the event or experience, looking at the positives of it rather than the negatives.  

Step 4: Positive focus

The next time you experience a positive moment, take a little longer than you usually would to enjoy it. Engage fully in the good sensations, happy thoughts and pleasant emotions that you feel and make a note of what you enjoyed about it. When you go home, why not reflect on what just happened and turn the savoring skill into a habit? [ref].

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About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

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Phillip Adcock

Phillip Adcock CMRS
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

Phillips Signature

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