Negative bias is simply a term describing our brain’s tendency to over-estimate threats and under-estimate rewards as a byproduct of our nervous system’s evolution to aid our survival.
Our brain’s primary job is to scan the environment for threats and orchestrate our body’s response to do what it has to do to keep us alive. If you can, imagine taking a walk on a nature trail and hearing a rattling sound along your path. Within milliseconds your brain will get notified through your sense of hearing, and immediately check in for any past associations of that sound with a threat. If it finds one, it will then trigger your amygdala (your brain’s fear circuitry), which will in term elicit your stress response to re-direct your energy from essential functions to your large muscle groups so that you can flee from the “imminent threat” ahead.
The end result is that your brain’s inner workings will make you run away from where you heard the rattling sound. If our brains were not so effective in responding to signals picked up from the environment, you and I would just keep walking toward the direction of the rattling sound and probably get bitten by a rattlesnake.
Now multiply this experience by 600 million years, during times in the history of our species when the conditions were harsh, and perhaps you can appreciate why our brain is such a pessimist. We did not inherit the genes of ancestors who were enjoying a moment to smell the flowers: Those ancestors got devoured by predators!
The problem with our brain’s negative bias
Once upon a time, our environment presented many threats to our survival. However, that is not the case today. The trouble with our brain’s “stone age” evolutionary propensity to tilt to the negative way of looking at things, inadvertently leads to an activation of our fight or flight response more times than what we are physiologically designed to handle. In fact, we know that when we operate under our stress-response-activation, essential functions, like our immune function, malfunction. We become temporarily compromised—physically, emotionally, perceptually, and cognitively.
We definitely need our brain to continue to assume the worst when we hear suspicious sounds while hiking in Yosemite National Forest. On the other hand, there are things we can incorporate into our day-to-day life to train our brain to become better at focusing on positive experiences to correct for the perceived threat false alarms.
The key to building a happier brain, and thus a happier life, is to give our brain experiences that will help it bounce back from an alarmed state to a calm state, where we regain access to the optimal functioning of our body systems and the executive functioning part of our brain. This executive part of our brain is involved with memory, learning, mediation of rewards, motivation, problem-solving and many more fabulous jobs.
We can build resilience and intercept unnecessary anger, worry, fear, and anxiety so we can return to the optimal state of calmness, joy, and peak performance.