Negativity Bias And Its Consequences

Why our fault-finding perception matters.

Many of our everyday habits were formed millions of years ago to enhance the survivability of our ancestors. Photo: Pixabay

Negative bias refers to our natural tendency to assume the worst.

Close your eyes. You are a Homo Sapiens, let’s say, 100 000 years ago. You have had amazing luck finding salt, an incredibly important resource, at the bottom of a small hole just wide enough for you to put your hand in. However, while hunching over to grab it, you are vulnerable to all manner of attack. Nevertheless, after observing the environment, you decide to hurry over and get the salt. While reaching for it, something scratches the back of your hand. Is it a snake? A rodent, ready to defend its nest? 

Well, your brain made that decision already, because it had reactively pulled your hand out of that hole the fraction of an instant anything felt amiss.

Negative bias refers to our natural tendency to assume the worst. In softer terms, largely, we tend to dwell on negative experiences much more than positive ones, thus leading to an imbalance in how we divide our attention. This is called negative potency. In terms of communications and marketing that is a glaring truth; a brand advertisement, for example, must excel in all categories of advertising, such as dialogue, screenplay, music, colour grading, visual style, etc., since one noticeable poorly executed aspect about the piece will lead to loss of interest and at worst, a worsened brand image. One bad thing contaminating the whole is called negativity dominance.

Imagine the most delicious salad with your favourite ingredients. It looks as tasty as it ever could; its fresh and captivating smell has already stimulated your salivary glands. While you’re getting ready to absolutely devour the perfect and healthy meal, you notice something that totally ruins the entire experience for you: there is a fat, ugly and disturbingly sizable cockroach floundering about in the middle of your salad. I’m sure you’d rather burn it than eat it.

It seems our mental math, when it comes to rating overall experiences, is rather skewed. And for communications, not very favourably.

Attention to detail when producing any content is therefore absolutely vital, since a problematic modifier or a sentence with ambiguous meaning will more often than not be interpreted more negatively. Cognition, unfortunately, does not first gather all available information at face value and then sum their negative and positive intensities to form an objective picture of the intentions of the creator or communicator, but rather passes immediate judgments that affect the whole message. 

In addition, we are better at outlining and differentiating negative things with specificity and detail than positive things. A body of linguistic research indicates that generally, languages have an elegant and abundant vocabulary for describing negativity, be it emotions, experiences or facets. For negative language, we have a sharp scalpel, but for positivity, a wide and slippery wall brush. This inherent asymmetry in our language and cognition is called negative asymmetry. When something is good, after applauding and toasting, there is little need to talk about it.

But when something needs to improve, we need to be able to discern and discuss how to achieve it.

With the knowledge of negativity bias tinting our perception towards the sour side of life, communications and marketing needs meticulous, skillful and elaborate creators to deliver a message reliably. The reasons for negative bias lie deep in our evolutionary ape-brain and are hence universal and inalterable. This is all made worse by the modern age of free-flowing information and ceaseless news cycles, that really highlight whatever is wrong, immoral and distressing in our society. To counterbalance, we need more wholehearted, honest and clear communication, be it from organizations or simply just you and me, humans.