Negativity bias refers to the tendency to register and dwell on negative information or experiences compared to positive ones, which are given less weight.
What is negativity bias?
A majority of people usually:
- remember traumatic experiences more vividly than positive ones.
- think about negative things more frequently compared to positive things.
- recall insults better than praise.
Those tendencies are explained with the negativity bias, which is a common psychological phenomenon that refers to the human tendency to register and dwell on negative experiences and information.
Essentially, our brains tend to pay more attention to negative details compared to positive ones, which is why the phenomenon is also known as negative attentional bias.
The bias is frequently used in psychology, where it can be considered one of the most common symptoms of depression and anxiety.
A phenomenon rooted in our evolutionary history
Negativity bias is believed to be rooted in our evolutionary history, where the bias was simply crucial to survive.
Our ancestors faced many threats in their environment including diseases, predators, and scarcity of resources. To survive, they needed to be constantly vigilant and responsive to potential danger, which is how their brains likely developed a bias towards negative information as a survival mechanism.
By paying attention to negative news, individuals survived longer. This explains how the genes passed on from an evolutionary perspective.
The impact of the negativity bias on our perception of the world
While we do face fewer immediate threats to survival compared to our ancestors, the negative bias persists and can significantly impact people’s perceptions of the world.
According to a study from the department of Psychology, people remember negative events more vividly than positive ones, which leads to a skewed perception of reality.
This bias can also affect interactions with others, as people pay more attention to negative feedback than positive feedback. Therefore, people are more likely to remember the negative traits of others rather than the positive ones.
Examples of negativity bias in action
Negativity bias or negative attentional bias can occur in various domains – from personal interactions to decision-making and memory recall. Read some examples below.
Like implicit bias, negativity bias can affect how we perceive and remember social interactions.
For instance, if someone receives a compliment and criticism in the same conversation, they are more likely to remember the criticism than the compliment.
Conversely, if someone has a negative experience with a person, they are more likely to remember that experience than any positive experience they may have had with that person. This can occur without our awareness in the form of unconscious bias, where we are unaware of our own bias towards someone.
Negativity bias can also affect people’s decision-making processes both in personal and professional aspects.
For example, studies show that people are more risk-averse when facing potential losses than potential gains. This is because the negative emotions associated with loss are more salient than the positive ones associated with gain. As a result of that, people avoid taking risks.
Research shows that bad memories last longer than positive ones. This means that people’s abilities to accurately recall events can also be affected by negativity bias.
For example, if someone witnesses a car accident, they are more likely to remember the details of the accident if it was a severe or traumatic event compared to if it was a minor fender bender.
Negativity bias can also be observed in the way people perceive media.
In particular, news outlets tend to focus on negative events, which can reinforce negative stereotypes and perceptions in society.
For example, if the news primarily reports on crime and violence, people may perceive their neighborhood as more dangerous than it actually is. This phenomenon is also connected to the availability heuristic, where individuals tend to judge something based on what is easily accessible or memorable to them.
Practical applications of negativity bias in marketing/advertising
Negativity bias has significant implications in the world of marketing and advertising. Marketers and advertisers can use the bias to their advantage by creating campaigns that tap into negative emotions and elicit strong responses from consumers.
Learn more about such campaigns below.
A common way that marketers use negativity bias is by creating fear-based campaigns.
Such campaigns are designed to evoke a sense of fear or anxiety in the consumer, often by emphasizing the negative consequences of not using a particular product or service.
Here is an example:
- An advertisement for a home security system might show a dramatized break-in and its aftermath, followed by the product being advertised as the solution to prevent such an event from happening.
An advertisement like that taps into the fear of burglary and the negative consequences of not having a security system in your home, thus prompting the consumers to purchase the system.
Another common use of negativity bias is the creation of guilt-based campaigns which aim to elicit feelings of guilt or shame in the consumer. This is achieved by emphasizing the negative consequences of particular actions.
Here is an example:
- An advertisement for a charity might show images of suffering children and the message that the consumer is contributing to their suffering by not donating.
Such ads tap into the guilt and the desire to do good in people, thereby increasing the likelihood of viewers donating.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
Negativity bias can be used to create urgency in consumers and evoke their FOMO (Fear of Missing Out.
By highlighting the negative consequences that can occur if the consumer does not act quickly, marketers can encourage them to take action right away.
Here is an example:
- An advertisement for a limited-time offer might emphasize that the offer is only available for a short period of time. Or that there is a limited number of items in stock.
Such an advertisement aims to tap into the consumer’s fear of missing out and the negative consequences of not taking advantage of the offer.
How to overcome negativity bias
There are various strategies that can be employed to overcome negativity bias. Here are some examples:
- Practice gratitude: Focus on the positive aspects of life to counteract the negative bias and cultivate a more positive outlook on life.
- Mindfulness practice: Be present in the moment and observe thoughts without judgment, so you can be more aware of the negative bias and learn to let go of your negative thoughts and emotions.
- Challenge negative beliefs: Question your assumptions and seek evidence to the contrary to see the world in a more realistic and balanced way.
As it has been shown in several studies, people with negativity bias have heightened syndromal depression, anxiety and stress.
But by focusing on positive experiences and thoughts, you can train your brain to have a more balanced perspective and reduce the impact of negative experiences and thoughts.
Overcoming negativity bias can lead to more positive social interactions as we become more attuned to the positive qualities in others and less focused on their negative traits.