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Our brain has evolved to think & fear the negative. Here’s how we can change that in 2022

Cognitively, we’ve evolved to have what’s called a negativity bias. Overall, we lose a lot of harmony, happiness and health because our cognitive system is rigged.

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I loathe my readers. They willfully misunderstand my columns and send me abusive and threatening emails. The other day I tried to forward one to my boss, but Bloomberg’s algorithm blocked the message because it contained such vile expletives.

Actually, wait. I thought I hated my readers. Then I took the trouble to browse through this year’s reader emails again, and I made a surprising discovery. Yes, I saw all those memorable rants and insults again. But to hop from one to the next, I had to scroll through many notes of praise, encouragement and appreciation. Some readers offered nuanced arguments and insightful facts. I love my readers.

The reason that my initial and instinctive view of, well, all of you was so skewed is that I have a human brain. Cognitively, we’ve evolved to have what’s called a negativity bias. Our ancestors in the savannas had a better chance of surviving and, therefore, of passing on their genes, if they paid disproportionate attention to anything actually or even just potentially bad.

The result is that our brains don’t average, add up or net off positive and negative stimuli but consistently favor the bad and suppress the good. So the whole is more negative than the sum of its parts. That’s why I vividly remembered your jeremiads but was foggy on your paeans. It’s also why you can get a glowing performance review but later feel like a failure — because you’re obsessing over that one footnote in “areas for improvement.” It’s why past traumas still haunt you, but joyous memories are often elusive.

The negativity bias explains why spouses and others in intimate relationships tend to forget the thousands of lovable qualities in each other and — when facing those dirty dishes, say — focus exclusively on the few bugbears. It’s why you can spend a whole week having polite interactions with strangers but on Friday night remember only that one driver with road rage, and tell your family that you had a terrible day. Overall, we lose a lot of harmony, happiness and health because our cognitive system is rigged.

Now the real bummer: The early hominids whose genes we’re carrying were, in at least one respect, blessed. They didn’t have Fox News and shock jocks who intentionally accentuate the negative. They weren’t yet hooked on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They didn’t have trolls, revenge porn, doxxing and the rest. We do. Thanks to our stunning cognitive abilities, we keep inventing technologies to make our rigged system even more efficient at being negative.

That’s why I quit using Facebook years ago. And I never joined Instagram. I’m still on Twitter — I’m told it goes with the job description of a columnist — but I try to minimize my time there. Whenever I exceed my ration, I find myself pulled into its vortex of negativity. Sometimes I unwittingly carry the bad vibes into my real relationships. Not good.

You can think of negativity bias, especially in the currency of social media, as the psychological equivalent of Gresham’s Law in economics. That’s the one explaining why “bad money drives out good.” It was coined, as it were, by Sir Thomas Gresham — financial adviser to Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century — when he noticed that people hoarded the shillings that contained only silver and spent the ones debased with inferior metals. The coins in circulation soon consisted almost entirely of the bad stuff. Does that remind you of our public discourse today?

The bad news is that we can’t outrun evolution; and technology won’t go away. The good news is that we have the option of awareness. The first step is to simply notice our negativity bias, then label and interrogate it — as I did when I inspected my email folder. A lot of dark thoughts drain away just while you’re doing that. Observing that mental chatter and letting it evaporate is what Buddhists call mindfulness.

We can go further. Why not, for example, schedule five minutes a day, or an hour a week, to pause and consciously evoke a good memory from the past, or a lovable quality in the people around us, or an eloquent passage in a column (starting with mine, of course). Remember that the brain processes negative stimuli more readily than positive. So if we want to adjust the asymmetry at least partially, we have to intentionally dwell on the positive sometimes.

Naive? Futile? Maybe. In that case, we can always give up and go back to Twitter to trade our barbs and taunts, then flip off the driver straddling lanes before settling on the couch to yell at the TV screen. That worked so well in 2021, didn’t it?

Or you could join me this January as I try to manage my cognitive negativity bias with some unaccustomed positivity. The goal is to keep it up for all of 2022. But I’m happy to compare notes in February — on Twitter, perhaps. –Bloomberg

Also read: Even mild Covid can cause significant brain changes, research shows


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