• Negativity Bias or Survival Bias? Is the Bad Stronger Than the Good?

  • The highly sensitive person is typically compassionate and conscientious. Must they accept that the bad really is stronger than the good? Some scientists have put forth the idea that humans have a negativity bias. But, is it possible that what we have is actually a survival bias? That we pay attention on a priority basis to those essential issues so that lesser concerns can have meaning?

    The present thinking seems to be that the bad is stronger than the good:

    “Over and over,” Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, says, “the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things.” Or as Roy Baumeister, a fellow psychologist puts it, “It’s evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good.”

    --Tony Schwartz, Overcoming Your Negativity Bias, New York Times

    Another article talked about the media’s tendency to grab our attention with the sensational and the violent. We seem to have an inbuilt need to watch a train wreck happening, unable to tear our eyes from it.

    Unless we survive, unless we avoid fire, famine, flood, and other threats to our very existence, does anything else matter?

    Our mirror neurons alert us to probable pain, injury, or death. Perhaps we also have a vested interest in studying what helps or hurts humans in general because we are one of them, vulnerable in the same ways.

  • What are the sources of negativity bias?

    Is it also possible that some of the seeming negativity bias is learned, that it relates to habits of mind and speech that are no longer as relevant as they were?

    Our ancestors, many of them, not necessarily millennia ago as hunter-gathers fleeing powerful predators, but in the 1800s and 1900s and sadly even now, experienced heartbreaking limitations and fled deplorable conditions.

    Their wisdom often lingers on in the character strengths and finer qualities of their great-great-grandchildren, but so perhaps does the imprint of their fears and frustrations.

  • My family's experience

    Friends and neighbors of my father’s ancestors in Ireland died in droves. In a decade a million Irish died from famine and famine fever. Another million left. During the 1840s a population of just over eight million became roughly six million.

    For those emigrants, the trip across the Atlantic was so perilous that the sailing vessels were referred to as “coffin ships.” One arrived in Canada with not a single passenger left alive. They had all died of overcrowding, disease, and hunger. The usual death rate was 25%.

    My family was fortunate. All survived and settled happily in rural areas, small towns, or city suburbs. Arriving here, however, immigrants who settled in the larger cities faced prejudice, deplorable living conditions, disease, and poor employment prospects.

    In leaving one country and re-establishing themselves in the new, the overall survival rate for Irish immigrants in this period was only 50%. 

    Your ancestors may well have a similar story or a far worse one. As a result, we may be steeped in the traditions our families brought with them and the conditions they endured.

  • Fast forward to today...the same issues are in the news

    Refugees from conflict zones in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia are flooding into Europe. Loss, risk and death haunt their journeys and are documented in heart-breaking images.

    The best response to undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Central, and South America has been hotly debated in elections in the United States.

    Prejudice still rears its ugly head in policing, politics, healthcare, education, and employment.

    As an HSP myself and as an HSP coach, I know that we feel both positive and negative emotion very deeply. We are often appalled by suffering and injustice. How do we retain a positive worldview?

  • Consider a survival bias

    My challenge to the researchers (mine is not the prevailing opinion) is to reword their description to include the possibility of a survival bias. Doing something potentially fatal is strongly opposed, wired into our brains and bodies. That, to me, sounds like a good thing.

    The researchers agree that…

    A person who ignores the possibility of a positive outcome may later experience significant regret at having missed an opportunity for pleasure or advancement, but nothing directly terrible is likely to result. In contrast, a person who ignores danger (the possibility of a bad outcome) even once may end up maimed or dead. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones.

    –Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, Vohs, Bad is Stronger than Good, Review of General Psychology, 2001

    So, first, take a deep breath before deciding everything is yours to solve. Put your own oxygen mask on first, as the phrase goes. You can become an activist, choose a charity, or become a volunteer, but maintaining your own balance is the key to making all your other efforts successful and sustainable. 

  • Not all "negative" thoughts are the same

    The challenge is to separate negative thoughts into two categories:

    1. Necessary concerns and life-preserving strategies
    2. Unnecessary and counterproductive negativity…learned, practiced and passed on, perhaps for generations

    Are you worried about your safety? Serious problems create a need for sophisticated problem-solving. But many of us spend more time on minor annoyances than they deserve. As a result, searching for solutions is different from grumbling that goes nowhere.

    Begin by practicing prudence. Wear your seatbelts and your sunscreen. Inform yourself if you don’t know what to do. If you find reputable sources and apply their advice with some common sense, the Internet and the local library put a how-to on an amazing number of topics at your fingertips.

    Do you have a critical boss? Most everybody believes they and their contributions are above average. But, just in case, you might want to continue upgrading your skills for the job, and for dealing with cranky people.

  • Monitor your conversational style

    If your phone calls to friends are litanies of the top five things most wrong in your life, switch to mentioning problems less often. You can talk about positive events without bragging.

    For my ancestors and yours, conversations about the top five problems may have saved lives but we can be alert to when they are not as necessary now.

    Remember that your disapproval of someone else’s behavior or wardrobe is often not a problem, or at least not your problem. The odds are it isn’t your job to fix it.

    Skip doing a mental makeover on everyone you meet. Resign as fashion arbiter or behavior monitor.

  • Ask for advice...with care...and ask before advising

    If you are wrestling with a problem, be specific about what you want:

    • I’m looking for information, rather than advice.
    • Can you help me do/ find ______?
    • What do you know about ______?

    If your friends call to drop their problems on you, giving advice is often counterproductive. Instead listen if you choose, then point them toward their best qualities and their greatest strengths:

    • What are you thinking about doing?
    • I remember the time you solved ______ by doing ______.

    Or you could surprise them, and simply say “How can I help?” Remember that it may take several days before the shock of being asked this question wears off and they can formulate an answer. It only works if you avoid rushing in to give them your solution in the meantime.