The negativity bias and why our brains are five times more attuned to nastiness and bad news

The recent federal election in Australia seemed like every other in one respect, the constant mud slinging and smears by both sides of the political spectrum.

Don’t they know we’re sick of it? Well, no they don’t, probably because they also know that negative messages are more effective and make a bigger and longer lasting effect on us.

This is due to the inbuilt negativity bias we all have because our brains are built with greater sensitivity to unpleasant news and negative messages.

This negativity bias is automatic and buried deep within our unconscious self.

This negativity bias is why the nightly news is stacked with bad news and unpleasant images. Bad news sells more papers, generates more clicks and the majority of successful novels and movies are full of negative events and themes.

This anecdotal evidence is supported by the research within the past twenty years.  This includes the studies by Rozin and Royzman who deconstructed negativity bias into four categories and Baumeister and colleagues who categorised “bad events” versus “good events”.

Another researcher Cacioppo demonstrated that the brain reacts more strongly to negative news through a greater surge in electrical activity. Other research suggests that we more heavily weight negative information when forming impressions and social judgments.

Back to elections and specifically voting behaviours where people are more likely to vote against a candidate because of negative information than they are to vote for them because of positive information. Researcher Jill Klein concluded, “character weaknesses were more important than strengths in determining…the ultimate vote”.

The reasons for this capacity to process negative input so heavily, most likely evolved from the beginning of time and the fact that our survival depended on us detecting and then avoiding danger.

These and other studies suggest that negative thoughts outweigh positive thoughts by anywhere from three to one to five to one. Taking the worst end of the scale this means that we need to work hard to generate five times as many positive thoughts than negative thoughts to achieve equilibrium. This negativity bias can easily influence our everyday thinking and behaviour on everything from relationships to our work.

Here is where positive psychologists such as Seligman come into play with his suggestion of a WWW framework –what’s working well – and of course the concept of mental toughness, which improves your positive outlook.

Mentally tough people generally have a positive ‘half glass full’ outlook on life and view and embrace all situations, even tough ones, as opportunities. With such a positive mindset they have developed an inbuilt system to counteract the one to five negativity bias.

For more information on becoming mentally tough contact Mental Toughness Partners.

Published by Paul Lyons

Paul is an experienced chief executive, leadership coach and mental toughness professional and you can reach him at or

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