Why does everything seem so negative? How to tackle negativity bias

Particularly during uncertain and challenging times, we probably notice that everywhere we turn, we seem to be surrounded by negativity. We may feel it affecting us, causing us to feel anxious, tired, fed-up, and even more irritable.

Interestingly, cognitive science can explain this. There is a reason we notice the ‘bad stuff’ more. This is due to what is called ‘negativity bias’. The clue is in the name, as human beings we are biased towards negativity! By exploring and building our own self-awareness of negativity bias, we can actively recognise it, challenge it and keep it in check.

As Unravellers, we love to share pieces of insightful knowledge with those we work with, and, if you’ve read any of our articles so far, you will have noticed that we love talking about our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors. They are so important in helping us learn about our human brains and the purpose of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The simplest way to explain negative bias is to think about these ancestors.

Cavemen and cavewomen were surrounded by constant physical threats and had to work hard to survive. As a result of this, the human brain ensures we are always alert, aware and scanning for danger, so that in the event of a threat (real or perceived) we jump straight into action. This part of our brain has stayed with us throughout evolution, even though we don’t face the same threats today. It is pretty amazing that we have this innate ability to bypass our ‘thinking’ process and just jump straight into survival mode within a few seconds and you may have already heard about this in terms of the fight, flight, or freeze response.

Therefore, because of our genetic make-up, we are programmed to be more alert and ‘tuned in’ to actively seek out any negativity around us. Our ability to seek out potential harm around us for survival, is hardwired in our brains. Imagine the possible survival impact if our cavemen and women ancestors had an innate positive bias and noticed beautiful flowers, sunsets and all things wonderful instead of threats and danger.

Of course, we may not experience the same risks and dangers now, but we are still impacted in the same way. For example, if we score well on one test, but less than expected on another, we often ruminate for longer on the lower score and experience the thoughts and emotions that come with it. Another example is that we can be experiencing lots of lovely things going on around us, but one negative altercation or event can have an impact on our mood for the rest of the day. What’s happened is that our programmed brains have discarded the many positive feelings for the one negative feeling, and then we have ruminated over that.

Negativity bias can often be reinforced by the media. Our brains are substantially more activated when we see or read something negative, terrible, sad or shocking than when we read something positive. It is no wonder then, that soaking up all this negativity can affect our mood and general well-being.

This is a predominant area of research which is forever attracting scientific and psychological research. One particularly interesting finding worth remembering is that research findings suggest that a ratio exists which can help us counterbalance negativity bias. You might think that if one bad thing happened, one good thing would equal it out? Not according to research. Research suggests the ratio is  anywhere between 3:1 and 5:1, depending on the situations. This means we may need three, four or even five positives to counterbalance one negative! In addition, holding on to positive thoughts for longer than we normally would, helps us outweigh any negative. These little gems of knowledge allow us to recognise when we are giving more of our focus on the negatives and can help shift our mindset towards the positives around us and ‘soak them up’ a little more to keep our mood and well-being out of the negative zone.

We’ve all done so well so far, communicating with our children and loved ones in these unique times. Let’s stay positive together.


Top tips to challenge negative bias

  • Build knowledge, understanding and awareness of your own negativity biases. By acknowledging when you are focusing on them, you can give yourself a little reminder on what is happening, and work on ways to shift your thinking patterns to more positive outlook


  • Hold on to positives for a few seconds longer than you normally would. This helps to ‘cement’ them into your memory, creating greater value for that positive experience


  • Begin a gratitude diary. List three things every day that you are thankful for. You could extend this by reflecting on positives you allowed yourself time to focus on or ‘soak up’ during the day


  • Reflect upon your media intake. Go through your social media and check you are receiving information from sources that inspire and make you happy. Consider reducing your exposure or removing/unfollowing some pages. The iPhone has a ‘screen time’ journal which can be useful to identify exact time spent on particular webpages


  • Approach your inner critic as you would your best friend. Notice when you take a negative stance on something and think about what you would say to your best friend if he/she was feeling this way


  • Practise things you are good at, passionate about and like doing. This helps to build your sense of accomplishment, increases self-esteem and is a good mood booster


  • Practise acting kindly towards others and recognise acts of kindness around you. Kindness towards others or doing good deeds for others boosts our own positivity, as does thanking others or recognising kind acts from others.


  • Connect with others and reach out to those around you. This can help you feel you have a sense of community and belonging, which boosts your mood


  • Spend time in the great outdoors, particularly green spaces or around trees. Being out amongst nature can be great for instilling a sense of calm and peace whilst boosting your mood. There are numerous studies out there that suggest trees and woodland walks can reduce anxiety and stress levels, leaving you feeling happier, more peaceful and psychologically healthier


  • Recognise and reflect the vast array of positive emotions you feel. If you find yourself thinking about negative emotions, change your mindset to think about activities, people or memories that evoke positive thoughts for you. Here are some examples to reflect upon (taken from The University of Otago, New Zealand: ‘Balancing Your Positivity Ratio’):


Emotion Possible Examples

Unexpected rush of happiness or delight

Birth of a child, unexpected bonus, winning a prize

Opens your heart and urges you to give back

When someone goes out of their way to help, a mentor steers you in your career, being grateful for health

Sitting back and soaking it in

Reading a book with a cat on your lap, walking along the beach

Sense of possibility and mystery

Learning a skill, reading for interest, studying

Belief things can change

Hearing stories of success and triumph

A good feeling when you can take credit for achievements of any size

Finishing a home project, winning a race, publishing a paper

When something unexpected makes you laugh

Cat videos, comedy shows, humorous greeting cards

Being uplifted to express what is good and do it yourself – it pulls us out of our shell

Witnessing a role model succeed, reading something that connects with your motivations

When you come across goodness on a grand scale and feel overwhelmed by greatness and momentarily transfixed

Seeing something magnificent in nature, or a human achievement. Seeing a wonder of the world, Neil Armstrong taking first steps on the moon

All of the above intermingled

Seeing someone we care for deeply, physical affection