Recognizing Negativity Bias and Cultivating Positivity Bias

By Simone Figueroa, Co-Founder and President, U-Thrive Educational Services  

The Negativity Bias is a psychological phenomenon in which humans give more weight to bad experiences than good ones. Evolutionarily, this phenomenon was advantageous and helped keep us alive when there was an imminent physical threat to our existence, such as a tiger rustling in the bushes. Despite the fact that most of us do not face these kinds of dangers on a daily basis, the Negativity Bias still plays an active role in our lives and while sometimes beneficial, oftentimes it can be harmful. 

We are constantly scanning our environment and naturally tend to focus on, and remember the negative events that have transpired throughout the day more than the positive ones. Oftentimes we have several positive experiences throughout the day, but determine it was a bad day if only one negative thing happened. Not only do we give disproportionate weight to the negative experience, but then we compound it by blaming or finding fault with ourselves for the bad experience, essentially throwing a second “arrow”. 

This is something that all humans experience and college students are no exception. College students self-inflict a lot of pressure on themselves and simply having this knowledge can help them to cultivate resilience and bounce back with greater ease. 

Being aware that this phenomenon is real and exists is the first step in minimizing the negative impact it can have. If we recognize that human nature’s default mechanism is to ruminate on a negative event, perhaps this awareness can help prevent us from shooting a second, or even third “arrow” at ourselves. 

But is there anything we can actually do about the Negativity Bias? Thankfully, the answer is yes. According to U-Thrive Educational Services renowned program contributor, Dr. Tara Cousineau, cultivating a Positivity Bias is an antidote to Negativity Bias, which can be accomplished by adding positive experiences into our lives more regularly. If we not only try to have more positive experiences throughout our day (by engaging with people and things that bring us joy), but also intentionally shift our focus to those experiences, we are setting the stage to help us better weather the stormy days. 

Dr. Cousineau recommends using the acronym “HEAL” (from the work of Dr. Rick Hanson) as a way to help cultivate positivity throughout the day:

Have a positive, or beneficial experience. Notice a positive experience when you’re having it, or choose to make one happen by doing something you enjoy.

Enrich it. Savor the experience by focusing on the sights, scents, sounds, etc.

Absorb it. Install this positive experience into your brain to help you remember it. 

Linking. When you’re in the midst of a negative experience, try to make space in your mind for the positive experiences you’ve encountered throughout the day so they can begin to soften the effects of the negative experience. 

Just like building muscles requires going to a gym and lifting weights, scanning our environment and acknowledging the good throughout the day also requires repeated practice and is not something that magically shifts overnight. However, by recognizing our Negativity Bias and making small adjustments to our perspective, we are able to cultivate our Positivity Bias resulting in improved resilience and mental wellness.

This article was adapted from key concepts taught by Dr. Tara Cousineau from U-Thrive Educational Services Life Skills for Thriving Program Module on Mental Health.

About the author

Simone Figueroa is the Co-Founder and President of U-Thrive Educational Services, an organization that brings mental and emotional wellness programs to college students to help them manage stress, become more resilient, and thrive throughout their undergraduate experience and beyond. Simone graduated top of her class from Columbia University with a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology in Education with an emphasis on Mind-Body Medicine and completed her undergraduate education at the University of Florida with a Bachelors degree in Finance, Cum Laude. During her studies at Columbia University, Simone took a year long practicum in Positive Psychology and became fascinated with and quickly saw a need for Positive Education, which led to the start of U-Thrive Educational Services. Simone lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, Isaac, and her dog, Diesel, and has a passion for traveling, being active, hiking, and spending quality time with family and friends.

Contact: simone@uthriveeducation.com 

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