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Negativity Bias: 5 Questions That Unlock Our Brain's Response to Global Trauma by Betsy Carr

May 3, 2017
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Michael Behmer

The Global Trauma epidemic that we are experiencing is arguably stronger than at any other point in human history. Global trauma is the experience that all individuals have in response to crisis like terrorist attacks and other acts of violence, even if they weren’t physically present (for more on how and why Global Trauma is experienced, read our blog post here*link).  Most experience these events through vivid and horrifying news reports or personal reactions in  own communities, YouTube, Facebook, and internet blogs. Global PTSD isn’t growing because the number of horrific events are increasing. Instead, fear and anxiety are growing because our access to information about these events is at an all time high.

Why is this a problem?

Information can be powerful. As humans, we have a preference to look for negative information. Negative information is any information about pain, disruption, fear, complaints, and slander, among others. We look for this information because it helped our ancestors see and avoid danger. However, our brains also make stronger connections about information with a negative tone. This is called negativity bias.

What is negativity bias?

The official definition: Negativity Bias refers to the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one's psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things (source).

In other words: Our brains respond more, make more brain cell connections, and process negative information to a greater extent than something equally as positive. We place greater meaning on the importance of negative information.

Why is this important?

Negativity bias creates a dynamic that fuels our global trauma epidemic. We are bombarded with horror stories, vivid pictures, and hateful commentary from the news, Facebook, and other media sources. Because of negativity bias, this information means more to us than positive information. This creates the strong stereotypes and a fear driven mindset that can be called global PTSD.

Why does negativity bias exist?

Negativity bias is pre-programmed into our brains, as it was a means to detect and avoid survival in our earliest ancestral times. Negativity bias is so much a part of our survival that it happens without thinking. This takes place in our Autonomic Nervous System, which you can read about *here link.

Can we control this pre-programmed learning reaction in our brain?

Yes! We can control and even change our degree of negativity bias through practice. In turn, this will allow us to view disastrous events in a new light, decreasing their personal impact on our brains,  and opening our minds up to new and better ways to create global change.

·       Awareness is key in our negativity bias response. As mentioned above, our responses are inherently subconscious. Awareness allows us to see how negative information impacts our lives. Ask yourselves: “How much negative information have I ingested today? What was my “gut response”?”.

·       Educate yourself around global issues.  Seek information that isn’t slanted towards any particular viewpoint, and try to understand both sides of an argument. This gives the brain a better way to interpret violent news stories.

After you increase awareness of your negativity bias, battle it! For every one piece of negative information you ingest, seek 5 positive events relating to the same topic. Research has shown that the 5:1 ratio is the amount of positive experience that will combat each negative experience (source).

·       Seek more positive experiences through the little things. Practicing gratefulness is one way to seek out the appreciation for positive circumstances in life, which takes away time from dwelling on the negative. Mindfulness, another little thing, allows you to truly savor each moment of positive experience. To practice mindfulness, simply take a few moments during many parts of your day to bring awareness to all 5 senses.

·       Turn off the negativity. Simply decrease your exposure to negative news shows and avoid negativity spurred by family or friends who have the tendency to complain and worry. Disengaging from the negativity, while engaging the positivity, will help shift your negativity bias to be less impactful on your own emotional state.

Global trauma is experienced by all who live on this planet, due to the readily available information and consumption of radical beliefs. Battling the negativity bias is an approach that will help to counteract this experience. However, the targeted victims of traumatic attacks will need highly managed care and recovery. Our next blog post will answer the question of what loved ones and aid workers can do to help victims cope with and manage PTSD.

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