I see it on social media, I hear it from friends when they recount their day. We remember the bad, we recall the negative. I’ve read about this in a couple books and it felt right to post a post about this innate bias, why we have it, and how we can learn to dance with it.
Ever since learning about Evolutionary Psychology, the theory’s persuasiveness has purchased property in my frontal cortex and has made itself comfortable. The explanations make sense, they slide through my scientifically-skeptical mind. And each new human behavior or emotion I hear explained by an evolutionary story tingles my spine and widens my eyes.
This post is concerned with how Evolutionary theory seeks to explain what is called the “Negativity Bias.” All quotations come from Dr.Haidt’s amazing book The Happiness Hypothesis. I offer the two methods most scientists agree help most significantly in reducing this bias.
The Evolutionary Tale
“It makes sense. If you were designing the mind of a fish, would you have it respond as strongly to opportunities as to threats? No way. The cost of missing a cue that signals food is low; odds are that there are other fish in the sea, and one mistake won’t lead to starvation. The cost of missing the sign of a nearby predator, however, can be catastrophic. Game over, end of the line for those genes”
Over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. We can’t just will ourselves to see everything as good because our minds are wired to find and react to threats, violations, and setbacks.”
The reason this is useful is it allows us to understand ourselves more. What is important is to realize that natural selection does not define you. You can mold this negativity bias towards a more practical and useful thinking pattern. However, this process starts with awareness.
Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all natural and costs nothing…The pill exists. It is meditation.”
I’ve tried to start meditating half a dozen times in the last 4 years and it never stuck until this last time I tried. What changed was that I read almost a dozen books on habit change and implemented the advice the books shared in common. I wrote two guides going over how I did this, here and here.
I have written a guide on implementing Cognitive Therapy in your life here. Dr. Haidt endorses CBT as effective treatment;
A big part of cognitive therapy is training clients to catch their thoughts, write them down, name the distortions, and then find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking. Cognitive therapy works because it teaches the rider (conscious mind) how to train the elephant (automatic mind) rather than how to defeat it directly in an argument.”
I truly think that the two most effective changes we can make, for free, that will improve our lives and the lives of all those precious humans that interact with us is to make meditation and the techniques of Cognitive Therapy habits. I hope this post catches you at a time in your life where you are willing to begin implementing these tools into your psyche. I love you and thank you for reading.