Negativity Bias

A negativity bias is a cognitive bias that contributes to the tendency to notice and dwell on negative information while neglecting positive information.

What Is a Negativity Bias?

Negativity bias can affect decisions, emotions, and even the ability to take in information. Several studies have shown that humans in general tend to attend more readily to negative information. Thus, a person is more likely to notice a car wreck on the side of the freeway than  a person helping someone fix a flat tire on the other side of the road. Negativity bias also helps to explain why people tend to be more bothered by criticisms than they are flattered by compliments, and why people tend to dwell more on mean gestures than they relish in kind ones.

Why Does the Negativity Bias Exist?

Researchers have not identified conclusively why the negativity bias exists. While some researchers argue that the negativity bias is an innate mechanism, others emphasize the primacy of cultural norms in increasing the likelihood that people notice negative information. Some potential reasons for the negativity bias include:

  • Negative information tends to be more novel and jarring. A loud car wreck is much more likely to get your attention than, for example, the silent assistance one person provides to another.
  • Taking in negative information–particularly negative information about threatening scenarios–is critical for survival, health, and social interactions.
  • People tend to more readily remember negative information than positive information. Thus the negativity bias could be a product of memory processing rather than cognitive functions that occur at the moment a person takes in information.

Negativity Bias and Mental Health

The implications of the negativity bias for mental health are clear and striking. Rumination–the process of lingering on information–over negative information can increase the likelihood that a person develops depression. People who do not notice positive stimuli or who tend to talk about negative occurrences more readily than positive ones are more likely to struggle with unhappiness, depression, and anxiety. A person’s negativity bias can partially be a product of personality and deliberate thought retraining, and people who do not have a strong negativity bias tend to be happier, better-adjusted, and more well-liked.

References:

  1. Hanson, R., Ph.D. (2010, October 08). Confronting the negativity bias. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rick-hanson-phd/be-mindful-not-intimidate_b_753646.html
  2. Negativity bias. (n.d.). The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Retrieved from http://skepdic.com/negativitybias.html
  3. Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(3), 504-511. doi: 10.1037//0021-843X.109.3.504

Last Updated: 08-12-2015

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  • lala palooza

    lala palooza

    May 25th, 2015 at 5:23 PM

    Negativity bias is interesting and i think it is one of my problems…
    and here is how i got into it : )
    i feel people, including myself, either are in denial about world problems or have been… and that that is why so many world problems are not addressed or taken care of… solved. …so i am one of those people who WAS in denial about world problems… i cannot ignore them any longer…

    so what is the difference between negativity bias and awareness of reality?

  • Richard

    Richard

    April 28th, 2017 at 6:08 AM

    Same here, lala. Not long ago, my therapist asked me, “Do you want to be happy?” I replied, “Yes, but not at the expense of truth. If there are serious problems in the world that could be solved if more people cared, and those problems continue unsolved, what is there to be happy about by ignoring the unnecessary suffering going on all around us?”
    I think it’s somewhat tragic when even mental health professionals have become so callous to reality that all they can do is focus on how to help other people be well by teaching other people to ignore these big, unnecessary problems and just to focus on ‘little pink bubbles of personal happiness’.

  • Kenneth

    Kenneth

    April 4th, 2016 at 11:10 AM

    My wife has been a pretty positive person but lately she feels like she has become very negative . Does not feel good feeling this way and wonders why she is feeling like this. Very conceded what should I do? Should I seek help for her and with whom?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 4th, 2016 at 11:17 AM

    Dear Kenneth,

    The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but we do encourage you to reach out for help for your wife. To connect with a mental health professional, feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

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