Listen, I understand that adopting a more positive attitude in the face of any and all of life’s challenges will serve me on my path to a more fulfilling life. It’s my modus operandi after all. So, you can imagine how irritating it was to learn that I was going to have to overcome an in-built “negativity bias” along the way. What’s a negativity bias you ask? Well it doesn’t sound too good does it? But fear not! Once you understand it, you’ll be better prepared to deal with it.
Let’s learn some neuroscience!
Don’t groan! We’re going to unravel some mysteries and you’ll get to a very rewarding “A-ha!” moment, I promise.
It turns out that your brain is hardwired to prioritize the negative. “Whaaat?!”, I hear you shriek.
There’s a very good, evolutionary reason for that though. Our ancestors needed to be ready to react to environmental threats quickly in order to survive. Turns out they were very good at it, which, let’s face it, is just as well or else fabulous you wouldn’t be here! There’s a part of your brain, which is called the amygdala. It’s sort of the “threat center” for your brain - although it is also activated by other emotional states. Let’s take a look at what happens when your brain is exposed to negative messages.
There is a very famous (well to neuroscientist peeps anyway) experiment which was done by Paul Whalen back in 2004 where he looked at the response in the amygdala to the pictures above. The eyes on the left are wide in terror and those on the right are happy - the cheeks rising. The pictures were presented to experiment participants who were placed in a brain scanner. The photographs were shown for less than 2/100s of a second and then the participants were exposed to “visual noise” (random shapes and images). The response in the brain’s threat center, the amygdala was measured. The brain images of the amygdala showed a dramatic response to the photograph on the left. There was no comparable response to the other photograph. The participants could not recall seeing the picture.
What does this all mean? It means that there’s a super-fast channel in your brain that prioritizes the negative, and it bypasses the visual cortex so you don’t even realize that you’ve been exposed to the image.
Other experimenters have shown that a negative image will “pop out” in a sea of positive images but the opposite isn’t true. If you’re exposed to an image of negative expressions (say a photograph of angry people) and there’s one happy face in the crowd, your brain won’t see that face. It won’t pop out. If you see a photograph of happy faces and there’s just one face with a negative expression, that face will pop out, and quickly.
Scientists have not yet found any comparable mechanism in the brain for prioritizing the positive.
Shit! So where does that leave us?
Well, better informed for one thing!
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the negative in your life? Of course you have, you’re human. Well, you’ve just gained a new perspective on why that is. When you feel like that you’re doing the equivalent of looking into a crowd of positive smiling faces but your amygdala has hijacked your perspective and has you focusing and reacting to the one negative expression in the crowd. Too simplistic? I don’t think so. I think there’s solid science backing up that perspective.
The question now is what the hell to do about that, right? Now that we know what’s going on, now that we see what’s happening in the background, we’re better placed to deploy effective counter-measures. So what have we got in our arsenal to fight back - and win! Because, let’s face it, we’re not just here just to make up the numbers, we’re here to win! We win by being informed and then stacking the deck in our favor.
Here’s how we do that:
A Gratitude Practice
Yes, I know I’ve written on this topic often before but that’s because it’s so important. Repetition is essential to learning and so I’m going to repeat myself here in the hope that this will be of service to you.
A gratitude practice is like an emotional inoculation against your in-built negativity bias. It feeds your brain with a base level of positivity so that prioritized negativity is landing in hostile territory so to speak. We’re going to make the negativity feel like an unwelcome alien that can’t survive in our terrain.
So what will that terrain look like? Well here’s the basic foundation of a gratitude practice. It’s starts the moment you open your eyes in the morning when you say some variation of this to yourself as you come to consciousness, "I am grateful for this beautiful day”. A little corney? Doesn’t matter if it works, right?
Next, every element of your morning routine is mindful in gratitude. What I mean by that is that you focus your attention on every element of your routine from turning on the shower (I am grateful that I live in this great country in this beautiful house where I can take a hot shower with just the turn of a tap). Really, it’s in every single action from flushing the toilet, and acknowledging that some people do not have a private toilet to use or clean running water, to having that first cup of tea or coffee and really enjoying the ease and privilege that you enjoy in all of these small things. You are priming yourself for positivity through acknowledging all that you do have.
A gratitude journal where you write just three different things you are grateful for every day is something I like to do too. I write at the end of the day so that every day ends in a state of gratitude, no matter what the challenges that may have come my way. When you commit to a gratitude journal you also are building up this catalog of different things that you are grateful for and it’s a great resource for whenever you need a re-set or have had a set-back and need to remember all of the things that you have in your life, how truly blessed you are. Mine is just a small notebook by my bed. There are lots of different ones you can buy, but really, any dedicated notebook will do.
The Who Matters Card
I forget where I picked this idea up, it could be from one of Brené Brown’s books, I’m not sure. Anyway, I call it my Who Matters Card and I keep it in my wallet. The idea is this; too often if we hear a criticism or even an insult we can take it to heart and go down a negative spiral of self-doubt and feel our self-worth depleting by the second. Worse still our brain can operate with what’s called a “confirmation bias” which basically means that it’ll look for additional data from our memory to support a certain position. Confirmation bias is what’s at play when you’re feeling down after getting some bad news like a criticism and your brain immediately brings to mind other situations and remarks of a similar type. It doesn’t mean the criticism was justified at all. It’s a bias. It’s just a function at play in our brains.
So, what is this Who Matters Card and how is it going to help? Well, some people’s opinion’s of you matters and other people’s just doesn’t. You get to decide whose opinion matters and i want you to do that right now. Who do you go to with your greatest struggles? Who do you confide in? Who really is in your corner and wants you to do well? This isn’t like your friends on Facebook list or your followers on Instagram, these are your core people and there are, I would say, between 3 and 5 of them. There are definitely no more than would fit on a piece of card the size of a credit card, like the one I have in my wallet.
If someone ever gives their opinion to you, about you, and their name is not on your Who Matters Card….what they say literally does not matter. What they say needs to be like water off a duck’s back.
There is one obvious exception to this and that is any expert in a field whose opinion you have solicited. Otherwise, just ask yourself if they’re on your Who Matters Card or not and then move on!
Redirect Your Focus
Sometimes bad news is just bad news, a massive obstacle, a loss, a substantial blow. Even in those rare situations we can be ready to deploy a counter-measure and it’s one sentence;
“What does this situation make possible for me now?”
This one simple question brings you sharply focused on a positive angle.
I’m not for one minute saying that this is easy. What I am saying is that it is possible. It is an exercise in extreme self-control and discipline and it is your decision, your choice, to deploy this counter-measure or not. You may not feel like doing it immediately, or at all, but I can guarantee that once you are able to bring your mind to this one question, and be unrelenting in the search for an answer, you will recover from whatever bad news you received faster.
Read Your List
Read what list? I speak about this in my book, The Little Book of Good Enough, and it’s your, Damn, I’m Fabulous List (also known by the slightly more mundane title of your Compliments List). Everyone needs one of these and, if you haven’t already written yours, here’s a brief “How-To” reminder.
Everyone, and I do mean everyone, at some point in their life has been given a compliment. Our negativity bias, as we’ve seen, can impact how careful, or not, we are with these precious nuggets. Too often we resist even accepting a compliment, no mind remember those we have received. That changes when you sit down and take the time to bring to mind all the nice things that have ever been said to you, about who you are as a person, what you’ve done, the talents you have, the kind and charitable acts you’ve done. You write all of it down, carefully, respectfully, and you keep it. You keep it and you refer to it whenever you need to prime yourself. That may be daily, or it may be just before you take on some new challenge. But you re-read it, often, to bring to mind how fabulous you truly are and to ensure your amygdala isn’t highjacking your inner narrative, with a little help from confirmation bias.
On a final note it’s worth remembering that confirmation bias doesn’t just operate in a negative environment. If you flood your consciousness with positive messaging, with the help of the 4 strategies I’ve outlined above, confirmation bias will be operating in that positive environment. You’ll be getting more bang for your buck so to speak. Result!
Negative issues will arise in your life, of course, but you can be primed and ready to deal with them. You know now that we do as humans have a negativity bias so, when your mind is on the brink of going down that negative path with the help of confirmation bias, hopefully, now, you’re better prepared to both recognize what’s at play and how to respond in a way that serves you. I hope you’ll decide to use these strategies and that they we be of service to you.
Until next time!