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The Negativity Bias

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

Why? Why are we addicted to saying no? One reason might be what psychologists call, “the negativity bias,” a tendency to focus on negative experiences over positive ones. This bias plays a significant role in decision making, affecting many aspects of our lives, including our ability to improvise.

Scientists believe the bias emerged as a survival instinct. For our ancestors, assuming that there was an imminent threat - a poisonous berry, a snake in the grass, an enemy nearby - could have been the difference between life and death. For them, it was safer to make a false-negative assumption, assuming there was danger when there wasn’t, than a false-positive assumption, assuming there wasn’t danger, when in fact there was.

Fortunately for us, we are here today, reaping the benefits of our ancestors survival instincts (even if their caution was occasionally misplaced). Unfortunately for us, even though we have eliminated countless threats to our survival, our instinct to assume the worst remains. On average we are living longer, healthier lives, with greater access to information and resources, so what’s with all this negativity? Well, it’s not just genetic. We also learn negativity, and it’s reinforced through social conditioning.

When we have negative experiences, as a result of our situation, at the hands of another, or by our own hand, we strengthen our tendency towards the negativity bias. Our brain starts to detect more and more threats, many of which are unsubstantiated. We spiral. Our mental health declines. We retreat, avoiding any experience that we perceive as threatening in an effort to protect ourselves. We make our situation worse and worse and eventually we feel helpless - the apex of negativity.

In psychology, “learned helplessness” is a state of being where one feels totally unable to change their situation, so much so that they don’t even try. In 1967, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted an experiment at the University of Pennsylvania to demonstrate this phenomenon. In the experiment, dogs were put into electrified cages. Some of the dogs were conditioned to believe that their electrocution was inevitable and their pain, inescapable. These dogs had learned helplessness. As a result, even when there was an opportunity to escape, the conditioned, “helpless” dogs did not attempt to free themselves. They did nothing. They submitted to the pain, despite the existence of an alternative.

The happy dogs, the dogs that had not been abused, that had not learned helplessness, escaped from their cages and made it to safety.

I think about learned helplessness a lot. It scares the shit out of me. It’s depressing. Are we all just dogs in a cage?

I think about my own trauma. Struggling with mental health, there have been times in my life when I felt helpless to change my situation. I also think about the trauma of others - survivors of abuse, of war, survivors of discrimination, of injustice and systemic opression. It’s easy to imagine how helplessness can emerge from the discord of our society, from ignorance, and from pain. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise?” By the same principle, if we do not see a way out of our pain, does one even exist? When life beats us down one too many times, it’s easy to think “well, this is my situation, and this suffering is a part of who I am.” Our perception, totally eclipsed by the the hurt of our own experiences.

Although I am speaking in the abstract, and generalizing for the sake of argument, it’s important to remember that dealing with negative thoughts is a real and pervasive struggle faced by many. It’s a struggle that is often hidden. Perhaps it is outside of our perspective, or perhaps it is right in front of us, but we do not see it. Perhaps it is a struggle we face, yet deny. It goes unacknowledged and ignored because we are ultimately unaware of who we are.

That last part, describes me in my early twenties. For years I was ignorant to my anxiety, in denial about my sexuality, and a stranger to myself. But two things helped me come into my own, climb out of my rut, and face my truth: my loved ones and improv.

When I joined the improv community, I was a different man. For years I struggled with my identity, not because I thought being gay was wrong, but because it didn't fit in with the image of who I wanted to be. Nevertheless, it was always there, and my teenage years were underscored with guilt, shame, and fear.

Then, at Stevenson University, I took my first improv class. As a theatre major, it was a requirement. Then I took another one. And a third. I was required to read a book called Truth in Comedy. It wasn't particularly well written. It was full of celebrity anecdotes. It was oddly formatted. But it held my attention and taught me the most important thing I learned in those four years at SU, two little words: Yes, And. Yes: accept your situation. And: capitalize on your circumstance. For me, Yes, And felt dangerous. It felt exciting. It felt stupidly simple. It challenged me to listen. It challenged me to reconcile who I was with who I thought I should be. I came out of the closet and asked out my first boyfriend with those words ringing in my ears.

Although my story is uniquely mine, I think the lesson is for anyone. The way around our negativity is acceptance. It’s love for you who you are. It’s a willingness to acknowledge what is, and without losing sight of that knowledge, aim for what could be.

People deal with struggle on a daily basis. Turn on any news channel, and - politics aside - consider how any issue, any event, any tragedy is affecting the people, the persons involved. It’s easy to forget that behind every story there are countless individuals, flesh and blood, like you and me, who are directly impacted, whose livelihood, mental health, and worldview are being shaped by those experiences and compounded by societal factors that exacerbate negative thinking and that teach helplessness: violence, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, religious persecution, discrimination, injustice, inequity, intolerance. How much of that is caused by a bias gone wild? How much of that is caused by guilt, shame, and fear? How much of that is caused because we believe we are incapable of change, stuck in a cage of our own creation?

There’s a practical and healthy level of fear. “A danger foreseen is half-avoided.” There’s a level of shame that defines our values. There’s a level of guilt that encourages us to do better next time. But there’s also a level of negativity that hinders our self-improvement, that corrodes our connection to others, that eliminates our ability to practice compassion. It’s a delicate balance, and one that is unique to an individual’s experience. It’s worth taking some time to consider, “what do you say no to?”

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