| Oct 27, 2022

Practice Makes Permanent: Retraining the Brain to Overcome Negativity Bias

Stimulating the right neural networks can improve confidence and decision-making under pressure. It can even cultivate joy.

Web designer and developer Shavini Fernando almost died multiple times. Suffering from severe pulmonary hypertension, her heart stopped as her oxygen levels tanked, and there was no device on the market that could help. That would have been enough reason to be pessimistic and stressed, but Fernando was also working several jobs and trying to earn her master’s degree. Determined not to give up on her dream of an independent life, she started developing an oxygen-monitoring wearable device, pulling in her university professors, engineer friends, and anyone else who would help.

Fernando not only developed a prototype device, but also won prizes for her invention and caught the eye of multiple investors. Now, her company, Oxiwear, is a literal lifesaver for Fernando and others. Her story shows that perspective can make an enormous difference in whether a person ultimately enjoys success. Achieving her mindset can be an uphill battle for many professionals, however, because of negativity bias.

With the stresses of the corporate world making it easy for this bias to flare, it’s essential for business leaders to learn to control negativity so it doesn’t deteriorate their attitude or skew their decisions.

A Two-Part Problem

Negativity bias is a quirk in how we think that has two major elements. 

The first component is the tendency for something “bad” to have a bigger effect than something that’s “good.” So if someone suddenly watches their retirement portfolio turn to dust as the stock market crashes, that is going to influence them more than if they won money in the lottery. Scientists theorize that negativity bias is supposed to be a protective mechanism. Our brains are hardwired to encode memories of danger, trauma, and negative experiences so they may be avoided in the future.

The second component of negativity bias, however, is that it can be reinforced. Neuroplasticity means that the brain is constantly building, breaking, and rearranging connections between cells based on experiences and needs. The more the brain uses a connection, the more that neurological pathway gets built up. Neurologist and Williams College adjunct professor Judy Willis highlights this process. “Practice makes permanent,” she says, “The more times the network is stimulated, the stronger and more efficient it becomes.” 

In other words, if we repeatedly look for the problematic and the difficult, it gets easier and easier to spot the “bad stuff.” For the same reason, if we feed the inner critic, we can become increasingly pessimistic and harsh to ourselves. Because we are biologically prone to negativity bias, we have to fight extra hard to intentionally focus on the positive and construct good mental scripts rather than bad ones.


Especially Dangerous for Professionals

On a typical day, business leaders won’t make even small decisions without some degree of risk management. In fact, in many corporate offices, the better you manage risk, the better leader or executive you are. So hour after hour, day after day, many leaders are likely to be thinking about what could go wrong and how to avoid mistakes. The more competitive the market gets, the worse this habit can become.

On his Super Entrepreneurs podcast, mindset coach Shahid Durrani described what it was like earlier in his career when he was caught in this kind of negative mode of always looking for fires to put out: “I remember waking up and thinking about the day, about all the things that needed to be done, and all the things that could go wrong,” he says. “[Your] brain is going like a thousand [miles an hour] as soon as you wake up in consciousness; it’s going everywhere.”

The corporate environment does not lend itself to combating negativity bias. Constantly looking for problems can influence how leaders approach important decisions, conduct analyses, and interact with their teams. Focusing on the one mistake you made in a presentation that got a great response overall, for example, can also prevent you from celebrating wins. Do that enough and you might start to avoid going after opportunities as they arise, because negative thinking can erode self-confidence.

How to Reclaim Positivity

Psychologist Rick Hanson of UC Berkeley noted the need for people to counterbalance negativity bias. He developed a four-step technique for this purpose, which uses the acronym HEAL:

  • Have a good experience: Create or remember something good and focus on how that experience felt (or would feel in the future).  
  • Enrich: Make your good experience even better by thinking about it for a longer amount of time or concentrating on all of the senses involved.
  • Absorb: Think about how the experience has influenced you and why it was different from other experiences. Allow yourself to feel fully about it.
  • Link positive and negative material: Join your positive thoughts and feelings about your experience to experiences or ideas that aren’t so good, such as relaxing with a book at night but staying aware you shouldn’t read too late. This type of linking is also the foundation for habit/temptation bundling.

More broadly, there is merit to the old adage that you become the company you keep. We can combat negativity bias dramatically by surrounding ourselves with positive people. When we are positive, we draw positive people to us. Oprah Winfrey famously attributes this “law of attraction” to her success. She connects it to an intentional development of who you are.

Gratitude journaling, subscribing to newsletters from positive organizations, seeking feedback, traveling to experience different cultures or settings, trying new hobbies, and aiming to have an equal number on either side of a pros and cons lists all are additional options that can help us see more good.

Get Ready to See the Light

If you lean toward the negative, it’s not entirely your fault — it’s science. Especially today with so much turmoil from politics, economic instability, and other problems, it is hard not to get overwhelmed. Retraining the brain to be positive and maintaining those gains is a lifelong endeavor. There’s no hack for that. Just as leaders are accountable for their business, they can take accountability for how they think and feel. This includes acknowledging how negativity bias can creep into what you do. Accept the assignment, because there’s no reason for you to sit in the dark when the one who can let in the light is you.

Wanda Thibodeaux

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux is a freelance writer, editor, and podcast host based in Eagan, MN. view profile


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