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When Negativity Bias Goes Wrong

cockatiel bites laptop keyboard
While my negativity bias and I battle it out, my parrot Pearl is engaged in his own battle of survival with his arch-nemesis – the laptop keyboard cover!

This is the month I turn 49.

49, of course, is just 12 short months away from my regularly scheduled midlife crisis.

In preparation, I have been experiencing ongoing minor bouts of anxiety over the last several months – and here, when I say “minor,” I mean they haven’t killed me yet.

It’s not that I particularly want to have a midlife crisis. But so far I haven’t found its “off” switch. And some part of me suspects it may end up being beneficial.

I say this because after each anxiety incident (which I absolutely hate, by the way) I emerge just that little bit stronger, clearer, saner, even.

I understand something about myself and how I’ve been living my life to date that I didn’t understand before. Sometimes, I learn something new I didn’t even know could be learned, at all or by me specifically.

For instance, after a panicked meltdown a few weeks ago, and the slow-burn of the ensuing healing process, I woke up one morning recently to realize how much more I like myself when I don’t hate myself.

Here is an example just in case that isn’t clear.

Let’s say I wake up tomorrow morning and notice I am feeling rested and refreshed. I meditate, recite my morning affirmations and prayers, do a session of yoga. I head towards my laptop, my precious parrot Pearl on my shoulder, and get some coffee going. We get settled in to start our workday.

As I dive into my first writing assignment, a thought pops into my awareness. “No matter how much writing you do today, it still won’t be enough to pay off the balance on your credit card.”

This thought is followed quickly by another. “You’re never going to build a successful business just making ends meet.” And another. “You haven’t sold a book in over a month.” And another. “You know what your problem is? You are a coward. You aren’t ambitious. You don’t have a writing career – you have a job.”

Unfortunately, the person I just described to myself isn’t someone I like. I don’t enjoy spending time in her company. I don’t look up to her or admire her. I really don’t want to be her.

And, frankly, I’m not her – not entirely, anyway.

There are extenuating circumstances behind every single half-truth I’ve just hurled in my own direction. And there are major wins and accomplishments in my near-past that haven’t translated to a single cent added to my bottom line, which doesn’t mean they aren’t major wins and worth noting all the same.

But none of this is factored in to the me that hates myself, the me that just shut myself down yet again, the me that views me as public enemy number one.

Scientists are now calling this innate tendency towards the negative a “negativity bias.” The theory is that the human brain, or parts of it, anyway, are hard-wired to give more weight to so-called “negative” stimuli than to their more positive counterparts.

Many researchers believe this negativity bias stems from ancient inbuilt survival instincts that keep us on our guard for the purposes of keeping us alive. This makes sense to me. “Expect the worst or become somebody’s lunch” is a motto I can readily get behind, whether the threat comes from a slavering saber-tooth tiger or an enraged gun-toting Texas driver.

But if this is how the negativity bias is designed to serve me, it has apparently evolved sufficiently at this point to even perceive me as a threat to myself! And that can’t be right.

Or perhaps it can.

Because, after all, homo sapiens as a whole has largely stepped out of the food chain o’ life that the rest of the planet still actively participates in.

This leaves my principal adversary as well as my principal ally to be….myself. In other words, I am no longer fighting saber-tooth tigers and only rarely fight Texas freeway drivers (mostly I try hard to be the polite one who never honks and gives tailgaters a wide berth). But my brain is still hard-wired to look for threats.

My negativity-biased brain is still much more accustomed to navigating daily battles for survival than it is to navigating daily battles for minimum word counts, at least evolutionarily-speaking. So the threat must be out there. Somewhere.

Or perhaps it is within.

Otherwise, when my negativity bias is not busy rearing its threat-obsessed head, I mostly like who I am these days.

What I mean is, these days I am more a friend to myself than not in many important ways that I’ve worked very hard to attain. I feel more comfortable in my own skin. I am able to nourish and care for my body well. Each day includes high-priority pursuits like meditation, yoga, reading, spending time with my precious trio. When my parents need me I am nearly always able to drop whatever needs dropping to be with them.

But my negativity bias survival brain doesn’t care about any of this. It can’t care, because it knows the saber-tooth tiger won’t care. The hungry tiger, real or virtual, only cares about its rumbling belly and that cute litter of baby tigerlets waiting for dinner back at the den.

And so I can’t turn off my negativity bias. Plus, I probably shouldn’t.

Instead, I need to get even better at taking its ponderously gloomy predictions with a glacier-sized grain of salt. And maybe I need to be kinder to it – throwing it a five-star rating or at least a “like” every now and again. After all, it has my best interests at heart, even if it has a funny way of showing it.

The way I see it, underneath all that spewing hate, it must like me at least a little bit or it wouldn’t be so keen to make sure I survive.

With great respect and love,


When Negativity Bias Goes Wrong

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Songwriter. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). When Negativity Bias Goes Wrong. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Nov 2019
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