Negativity bias

The Negativity Bias

by Vicki on April 16, 2010

There are so many social psychological theories that have incredibly powerful implications for the world of business and for life in general. Through our blog, I hope to share some of these with you.

Today’s concept – the “negativity bias”.

The negativity bias refers to an asymmetry in the way we perceive good and bad information in that we give more weight and consideration to bad than we do to good:

The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good (Baumeister et al., 2001).

Researchers have hypothesized that we are programmed to give more weight and attention to bad versus good information since it is adaptive to our survival (i.e., bad gets more of our attention so that we can act quickly in response to threats).

What is the impact of this bias in the context of every day life? Unfortunately, quite significant:

  • Negative impressions are quicker to form than positive ones. The same goes for negative stereotypes (and they are much harder to dispel)
  • Overall, negative events (e.g., losing money, losing clients, getting criticism, exposure to sad news) will have greater impact on individuals than positive ones (e.g., winning money, gaining clients, getting praise, exposure to happy news)
  • Within relationships, negative acts have more impact on relationship quality than positive acts. For example, it may take as many as five compliments to undo the damage done by a single insult.
  • Among spouses, levels of distress, but not affection, predict subsequent divorce

Thankfully, researchers assert that many good events can overcome the effects of a single bad one.

So, the next time your initial reaction is to be short with a co-worker, a customer or even your spouse – take pause and consider the consequence of your response.

Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K.D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Cacioppo, J.T., & Berntson, G.G. (1994). Relationship between attitudes and evaluative space: A critical review, with emphasis on the separability of positive and negative substrates. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 401-423.

Cacioppo, J.T., Gardner, W.L., & Berntson, G.G. (1997). Beyond bipolar conceptualizations and measures: The case of attitudes and evaluative space. Personality and Social Psychological Review, 1, 3-25.

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