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Effects of Negative Thinking + How to Overcome Negativity Bias

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Negativity bias - Dr. Axe

Ever notice that negative emotions, such as disappointment and anxiety, tend to make a bigger impact on us and last longer than positive emotions? If you’re someone who spends more time thinking about upsetting or bleak events in your life rather than uplifting ones, know that you’re not alone — this is called a negativity bias, and it’s something that affects most people.

Although being focused on challenges and even regrets in your life can sometimes be a good thing — considering it can help you grow and plan for the future — if you want to be happy (and who doesn’t?), then too much negativity can stand in your way.

Because our brains naturally tend to fixate on the negative, we have to consciously bring our attention toward the positive if we want to keep things in balance.

How do we do this? Below we look at ways to manage negativity bias, such as by practicing more self-awareness, gratitude and perspective-taking.

What Is Negativity Bias?

Negativity bias describes how most people tend to be impacted more by negative events in their lives than by positive ones.

The Positive Psychology website states the definition of negativity bias as “our proclivity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.” This can lead to problems such as ruminating on negative thoughts, regretting past mistakes, worrying a lot about the future and feeling depressed.

What is negativity in a person exactly? Negativity is the expression of criticism of or pessimism about something.

This is the opposite of positivity, which is “the practice of being, or tendency to be, positive or optimistic in attitude.”

Negative emotions can include:

  • insecurity
  • sadness
  • anger
  • bitterness
  • guilt
  • shame
  • disappointment
  • worry
  • panic

When people feel negative they are more likely to do some of the following:

  • Respond to threatening stimuli in their environment
  • Remember insults more so than compliments
  • Dwell on the past and replay unpleasant or traumatic events
  • Feel guilt and shame over past mistakes
  • Feel angry and resentful toward others
  • Have low self-esteem due to filtering out positive aspects of oneself

Related: What Causes Self-Sabotaging Behaviors? (And How Do You Stop?)

Types/Varieties

What is an example of negativity bias? Researchers sometimes use the four concepts below to unpack different types of negativity biases:

  • Negative potency — Positive and negative entities hold different importance to us, even if they are experienced as being equally emotional.
  • Steeper negative gradients – Negativity of bad events increases faster when they grow closer to us.
  • Negativity dominance – When something is a combination of negative and positive, it usually winds up feeling mostly negative.
  • Negative differentiation – Negative events are felt as being more complex and usually result in a wider variety of responses.

There are lots of everyday situations in which this type of bias makes an impact on our decision-making and behaviors. Here are some examples:

  • We tend to work harder not to lose things (a negative), such as money, than we do to earn them (a positive).
  • We feel upset about losing something, such as a relationship, than we felt happy about gaining it in the first place.
  • If we receive both positive and negative feedback over a project, we’re more likely to focus on the criticisms and feel disappointed.
  • When we think back on events, we’re more likely to recall the details that made us feel bad than those that made us feel happy.

Related: Dangers of Toxic Positivity + What to Do Instead

Where It Comes From

What causes negativity? Most researchers (but not all) believe that it’s actually built into humans as an “adaptive evolutionary function,” meaning that it helped our ancestors to survive, so it was passed down over many generations.

Essentially, focusing on the negative, such as starvation and predators, was a matter of life and death for humans living many centuries ago. A greater focus on the threatening/negative stimuli in people’s environments helped them avoid being hurt or rejected, which led to a higher chance of survival.

This in turn meant that a negativity bias got passed down as humans evolved.

Why is it sometimes easier to be negative than positive? It’s because our brains prioritize negative information and threats.

This actually helps us learn from a young age which things we should avoid so we don’t get hurt. While this adaptation is beneficial for keeping our species alive, it can unfortunately lead to poor moods, stress and many associated effects.

Another important reason why people fall into feeling negative is because of how negativity transfers easily from person to person. This phenomenon is referred to as “emotional contagion,” suggesting that poor moods can be contagious.

As the Mindful Ambition website puts it, “People who express negativity can be like emotional black holes. Everyone who comes in contact with them suffers the consequences.”

What part of the brain is responsible for negativity?

Research shows that negative emotions activate the amygdala, a structure in the brain’s limbic system that psychologists say is focused on managing fear, threats and bad news.

The limbic system plays a role in controlling many cognitive processes, and the amygdala is considered the most “primitive” part of the limbic system that governs many emotions and also motivation.

When we experience negative events, they get stored in our memories more easily than positive events. They also stay in our awareness for longer as vivid short-term memories, which helps our brains process and learn from them.

Effects of Negativity

Is being negative a bad thing? While some level of negativity in every person’s life is expected and “normal,” too much can be dangerous for your health (and for those who spend lots of time with you, too).

Negativity is linked to increased depression and anxiety, which isn’t surprising considering it makes us more likely to be regretful and fearful.

Studies have found that negativity can lead to stress-related physiological symptoms, such as increased heart rates and higher startle responses. This may make it hard to sleep, lead to changes in appetite/digestion and contribute to fatigue.

Too much negativity can also lead to problems in our relationships, trouble with decision-making and trouble with focusing/maintaining attention. When we’re overly negative it may be hard to trust people and build meaningful relationships, since we assume people are “all bad” and will let us down.

We might also be inclined to avoid risks, which limits our growth, to pass up challenges that can be good for us and to overlook constructive criticism that can ultimately help us improve.

How to Overcome Negativity Bias

So how do you get rid of negativity?

Here are some strategies for keeping a positive mindset and minimizing negativity in your life:

1. Practice Self-Awareness

First and foremost, it helps to gain awareness about how you’re feeling by observing your emotional experiences.

You can do this via practices like mindfulness meditation, a body scan, journaling or talking with someone you trust, which all involve approaching your inner experience with “nonjudgmental awareness.”

Once you’re aware of your own emotional state, it’s easier to see how a negativity bias may be playing a role. Then, with more insight you can come up with ways to turn things around.

2. Turn Down Negative Self-Talk

Challenging negative self-talk and replacing it with positive self-talk instead is a great way to start improving your outlook and self-esteem. You can do this by “talking to yourself like you would a friend.”

For every criticism you have of yourself running through your mind, try to replace it with one or more affirmations focusing on something you’re proud of. You can also use this same strategy when it comes to flipping negative recurring thoughts that you have about others.

Keep in mind that whatever you’re feeling, it’s likely only temporary since emotions are always shifting. You don’t need to force away negative feelings, but you can slow down and observe the thoughts contributing to your emotions rather than acting on them impulsively.

3. Focus on Gratitude and Look for the Positives

When something bad happens in your life, is there a way you can restructure and reframe the experience to look at the upside or “silver lining”? Perhaps you can find a hidden lesson associated with a challenging event that is actually something to be grateful for.

Here are some steps you can take to focus more on the positives in your life:

  • Keep a daily gratitude journal. Try to engage fully in joyful experiences, and then record them that day to help you savor and remember them.
  • Limit your exposure to news coverage, which usually focuses most on attention-grabbing problems in the world.
  • Write down compliments that people give you, and store them in a “positivity” folder.
  • Work with a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy who can help you reframe your thoughts. For example, your therapist may help you learn how to label the process of thinking so you can get some space between you and your negative thoughts.

Another way to potentially curb negativity is to pay attention to your body language and facial expressions. For example, standing up straight and smiling can actually help lift your mood and make you more confident when handling challenges.

4. Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt

It’s easy to harp on insults and take negative comments personally, but as much as possible, keep in mind that other people’s emotions and opinions usually have little to do with you.

When someone makes you feel badly about yourself/your life, assume that the person is suffering in some way and isn’t intentionally hurting you. Try practicing compassion and work on perspective-taking — this way you’re less likely to overreact and to stay fixated on the negative.

5. Try to Avoid Spreading Negativity to Others

When you do inevitably feel down, try to avoid spreading your feelings to others. It’s beneficial to talk out your problems, but you don’t need to blame others or take your anger out on them.

If you’re in a bad mood and want to prevent yourself from spreading it to others, distraction can sometimes help. To help you from overanalyzing your thoughts and letting them continue to drag you down, try doing something that makes you feel calmer, such as reading, working out, going for a walk outside, cleaning your house or doing something creative.

Conclusion

  • A negativity bias describes how, as humans, we pay more attention to negative/threatening things in our environments than to positive ones.
  • What causes negativity bias? It’s believed to be “hard wired” in humans as an evolutionary adaptation, since it helped our ancestors survive. While it’s natural and has some advantages, it can also increase depression, stress and anxiety.
  • How do you stop negativity bias? Some exercises to help decrease it and boost positivity include keeping a gratitude journal, meditation/self-awareness practices, talking to a therapist, reframing thoughts, savoring enjoyable moments, learning not to take things so personally, and writing down compliments and achievements.
Josh Axe

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