Negativity Bias: One part of the wider picture.

June 30, 2024

A tilting scale where one sad emoji weighs more than five smiling emojis

Life is complicated. A lot happens simultaneously. And so it is a vital skill to be able to focus on one thing amidst the swirl of everything, everywhere, all at once.

Each of us knows this feeling: zoning in on what we’re doing and finding flow, we can see a task through to completion. But there is a shadow version of this to be wary of: one where, at a biological level, we are wired to prioritize our acute attention towards negative things because, after all, a priority for living is to endure threatening situations.

Our brains are hardwired to keep us safe. This lends well to basic survival but it can also narrow our perspective to the exclusion of all else. Pointed focus comes with the risk of tunnel vision where anything outside of it is disregarded, which isn’t always great for our headspace or the people around us. Focusing solely on the negative broods despair and inaction; a survivalist mindset with little room for hope.

Negativity bias is the cognitive tendency for things of a more negative nature to have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things. It magnifies unpleasant thoughts, emotions, social interactions, and harmful events.

When we’re in conflict, this translates to a fixation on the problems in front of us. How do you think this tunnel vision might affect one’s role in a conflict? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Overemphasis on negative aspects of a situation.
  • Ambiguous actions are interpreted as hostile.
  • Dwelling on perceived slights or criticisms.
  • Worst-case scenarios are anticipated as sure things before they might happen.

These effects can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where our negative expectations shape the conflict’s outcome. Tensions escalate from a competitive defense and finding common ground where potential solutions might stem from is difficult.

A sailboat in the ocean with strong winds coming from both sides

People who are more aware of their headwinds (ie: the barriers they face) than their tailwinds (ie: the benefits they receive) have an outlook that doesn’t lean into the strengths of everything at play.

Expanding our perspective to include both the problem as well as benefits, solutions, and things entirely separate helps us to remember to hope and stay committed to working through the challenges. Further, it translates to feeling empowered, collaborative, and contented, despite bumping into the unavoidable friction of conflict.

Imagine this workplace scenario:

Sarah and Mike are coworkers on a marketing team. Sarah perceives Mike as consistently late in delivering his part of projects, which affects her work. Due to negativity bias, Sarah focuses heavily on Mike’s delays, overlooking his other contributions.

During a team meeting, Sarah criticizes Mike’s work ethic, citing his latest delay. Mike, feeling attacked, becomes defensive and points out times Sarah has made mistakes. The conflict escalates, creating tension in the team.

Whoa! Can you see how Sarah’s fixation on Mike’s lateness is not helping the situation? Maybe the themes of this example ring true for you; can you reflect on a situation where you might have focused too heavily on the negative aspects? How might things have turned out differently if you had taken time to adjust your perspective?

Widening our perspective can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. One way to do it is to focus on gratitude. Gratitude is an antidote to the negativity bias, allowing us to take a wider perspective so that we can tackle our challenges with a bit more resilience.

Ideally, we would be able to notice our agitation; realize that our focus has narrowed, step back to reconsider the full situation (both the perceived negative and any overlooked aspects), and then consciously choose our next words and actions carefully.

But life isn’t always ideal. It can be hard to catch oneself when in the middle of a reaction. A defensive response occurs at a biological level in the brain that precludes rational thought. In cases where perspective seems impossibly elusive, an intervening manager or mediator can offer support.

Here’s what this sort of third-party conflict resolution might look like in our example:

  1. Sarah and Mike’s manager intervenes, encouraging both to reflect on their perceptions and actions.
  2. Sarah realizes her negativity bias led her to overlook Mike’s strengths. While timeliness is an issue, she acknowledges that Mike often provides high-quality, creative ideas that enhance their projects.
  3. Mike recognizes that his delays impact others and commits to improving his time management.
  4. Both express gratitude:
    Sarah: "Mike, I’m grateful for your creative input. Your ideas often take our campaigns to the next level."
    Mike: "Sarah, thank you for your attention to deadlines. It helps keep our team on track."
  5. They agree to a new workflow that leverages everyone’s strengths, with Sarah helping Mike with timelines and Mike assisting Sarah in brainstorming sessions.

This approach helps neutralize the negativity bias, fostering a more balanced and appreciative work environment. What is better for Sarah and Mike, also benefits the resultant work they can do together.

In this spirit, two of the core programs that Mediation Services has developed over decades of community work are Building a Respectful Workplace (online or in-person) and Dealing with Defensiveness (online or in-person). If this example feels frustratingly familiar, click on through to dive deeper into our structured programming and learn more.

Remember: life is complicated. A problem upon which we’re focused is but one part of the larger mosaic of life, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this.

  If   When we catch ourselves fixating on something negative in a conflict, remember to take a step back and cultivate a wider perspective in which that aspect plays its part; leaving nothing out.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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