To Understand Positivity, Investigate the Negativity Bias First

Positivity-Negativity Bias

In a single day, I’m responsible for scouring through thousands of messages and emails. I also wonder if each person who types their message ponders how their words may affect someone else. Zero filters through their stream of consciousness, in a sense.

Although a large chunk of meaning is lost through text (as nonverbal cues count for over 90% of communication), we can still capture some of that through emojis and punctuation. Does misery truly love company?

For example, when it’s rainy out in the morning, some people will mope and groan for a good hour before begrudgingly starting work. Other people may instead see the shower as a complimentary car wash from the weather gods.

Positive psychology and the negativity bias are more closely connected than what appears to be on first sight. It’s a good start to start figuring out what accounts for sunshine. But what about the rain?

To really understand how to rewire our thoughts in a more positive manner, we have to thoroughly understand its all-too-familiar counterpart—negativity—first. What keeps chronically happy people happy, and forever miserable people miserable?

Blanket statements such as “Just think positively!” or “It’ll get better, this too shall pass!” may only pose to be a half-baked band-aid solution in the grand scheme of events. A constant stream of moping to “vent” and garner pity does the same.

The Negativity Bias: How it Shows Up in the Media

People are drawn to shocking, negative news. Why? There’s a myriad of reasons. Our brains are hardwired to pay attention to information that stands out, and the news does a fantastic job in strategically keeping us hooked.

On our phones, it’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of an endless stream of negative news through Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit feeds. The 21st century slang known as doomscrolling, if you will.

Negative events historically posed more immediate threats to survival, so our brains developed to prioritize them. The continuous 24/7 (heavily negative) news stations and rise of social media amplify this bias.

Stories that evoke strong emotional reactions, especially fear or outrage, tend to spread rapidly, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle.

While negative news can be important for awareness and accountability, an overemphasis on it may contribute to a distorted worldview and foster anxiety, pessimism, as well as learned helplessness from the audience.

It’s the viewer’s responsibility to be aware of these underlying biases lying in the news to use their best judgement to seek a balanced perspective from multiple sources.

So, What Personality Traits are Correlated/Predisposed to Negativity?

Aside from the obvious Big Five Neuroticism (N) link, what other personality traits are linked to negativity? Negative Affect (NA) breaks down into multiple dimensions:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Nervousness
  • Hostility
  • Shyness

Positive Affect (PA), in contrast, breaks down into the following:

  • Energy
  • Enthusiasm
  • Confidence
  • Self-Esteem
  • Optimism
  • Resilience

PA and NA are scales totally independent of each other. So, interestingly enough, an individual can be high in both PA and NA! Wait…how could this be?

Other than obvious psychiatric explanations such as Bipolar, BPD, or DID—high PA and NA could look like an individual who has a ton of drive but also possesses a boatload of anxiety and dread while doing so (possibly to avoid failure). Sounds a lot like Neuroticism (N) from the Big Five, right?

Some studies associate positivity with extraversion, but that would be generalizing. There are certainly chronically negative extraverts and highly fulfilled introverts.

Extraverts generally display themselves as more energetic and go-getting, whereas introverts have a more calm, grounded presence. Positivity has little to nothing to do with this.

Good news—positivity can be learned! And yes, negative thought patterns can be unlearned. That’s what cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is all about. Challenge each negative thought with two positive ones, or simply reframe the negative thought altogether.

Take the rain example from earlier into consideration: a free car wash rather than a reason to complain!


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