Last weekend, while visiting a town a few hours away, I got myself into a bit of a pickle with a parking spot. It was a pretty pesky parking pickle, to be honest with you. And thanks to negativity bias, this particular parking pickle nearly picked apart my whole night.
My wife and I had driven into the town center for dinner, and were having trouble finding a spot to park. We drove a few blocks out to a less crowded side street with ambiguous signage and no parked cars. Seemed a little fishy, but we were getting desperate, so we parked and moved on.
As the night went on, I felt more and more sure we had done something wrong. There was no way we were allowed to park there. We were going to get a ticket, or towed, or worse (I’ve asked myself since, and I’m still not sure what “worse” even meant in my mind).
For the rest of the night, this parking pickle soaked up all my attention like so much brine. Despite a great dinner, exciting conversation, and a nice walk around the cute little town, I was fixated on what could go wrong. By the time we got back to the car (to which absolutely nothing had happened, btw), I felt like we had gotten away with some grand scheme. Like I was the getaway driver in a heist.
While I certainly didn’t enjoy it at the time, I’m glad that I ran into this perilous parking pickle. Because it served as a crystal clear reminder of the power of negativity bias.
Is It a Tiger?
As humans (as animals of almost any kind, really), you and I are wired for negativity. We’re more likely to pay closer attention to negative stimuli than to positive or neutral ones.
It’s no mystery why this happens. From an evolutionary perspective, a person who puts a high premium on danger and “bad stuff” is well fit for survival.
Imagine an ancient human running simultaneously into an enticing cache of berries and, say, a tiger. The tiger should be priority number one. You can come back for the berries later, but you can’t put off dealing with the tiger.
It’s a helpful mechanism, at least in theory. But our modern world is far more complicated than berries vs. tigers. Like when you have a mostly-pretty-good day at work, but all you can think about is the rude thing Janet said to you in that meeting. Janet’s not a tiger (even if she likes to think she’s fierce). She’s not a life-or-death threat, but your brain is still wired to keep a watchful eye on her. Just in case.
Or when you’re having a great day out at the fair, but you’re fixated on how bad the food was. That corndog is not a tiger, but our brains don’t always know the difference.
Oh, and the uncertain possibility of maybe getting a parking ticket? Not a tiger.
Negativity Bias and Anxiety
Negativity bias is an important mechanism for us to have, so that we can identify and deal with potential threats to our health and happiness. But we encounter negative circumstances all the time, and they’re not all equally worthy of our attention.
Some things really are dangerous or harmful to us, and are worth addressing right away. Others are less important, but are still worth looking into. Still others we can ignore entirely.
But our instincts don’t know that.
When we let negativity bias take up an outsized place in our psyche, it contributes to a pattern of anxiety. If we don’t keep that negative voice in check somewhat, it gains too much power. It keeps us asking the question, “okay, what is the next bad thing I need to watch out for?”
This feeds into unhealthy anxiety. It creates a subconscious belief that there is always something bad going on out there, and we always need to be on high alert. And as we’ve talked about before, your mind can always find either positive OR negative thoughts, depending on what you search for.
How Can You Avoid Negativity Bias?
In truth, we cannot avoid negativity bias entirely. Nor would we want to. After all, what about the times we do run into the odd tiger?
Okay, crossing paths with an actual tiger is highly unlikely for most of us. But we do each still face very real dangers to our health and happiness from time to time. Figurative tigers. And when they come, it is a good thing that our minds and bodies can prepare us to face them and deal with them appropriately.
You wouldn’t want to completely avoid negativity bias any more than you’d want to shut off your ability to feel fear or pain. Sounds fun in theory, until you try it out and realize you needed those things.
But just like with fear or pain, we can still take steps to keep our negativity bias in check. We can mitigate its power to ruin a great thing. But at the same time, we can leave it intact for those times when we really do need it.
Keeping Negativity Bias in Check
The most important thing to remember with negativity bias is that we always have a choice. Precious little in life is all the way good, or all the way bad. Our instincts are great at bringing to our attention a variety of things that may be dangerous.
But you are intelligent. You are more than your instincts. You are able to read those messages and decide for yourself what to give your mental energy to.
When instinct shifts your gaze to something negative (and yells “look! A tiger!”), you have the power to ask yourself, “is this a tiger?” Sometimes it is, and you can deal with that. Usually though, it’s not a tiger. Maybe it’s just annoying, or a bit of a bummer.
In cases like those, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to give it the bare minimum. Save as much time and energy as we can, and get back to the parts of our lives that we love.
The choice is always yours. Positive thinking can always make your life better. Ruminating in negativity usually won’t.
Next time your body tells you you’re dealing with a tiger, and you feel your heart race and your muscles tense up, the call is yours to make. If it’s really a tiger, you can deal with it now. But if not, give yourself permission to let it go and get back to your life.