Why Negativity Bias Sucks

Beware the black swan? Don't worry about it!

Photograph by Getty Images

I have a really unpleasant habit. It begins the moment I wake up each morning. Lying in bed, I immediately begin a mental review of my upcoming day, looking for any possible unpleasant events that may be on the horizon. Whether it’s something potentially painful like a root canal or the minor inconveniences of a boring business meeting, each incident is duly noted with anxious anticipation. It definitely gets most days off on the wrong foot. As it turns out, I have a lot of company.

While most people don’t suffer from my neurotic morning ritual, a great deal of formal research has found a persistent and powerful “negativity bias” in human perception. A few examples: The brain reacts more quickly to negative words than to positive. Negative feedback leads to more efficient learning than positive feedback. Yet another study found that almost 65% of words describing emotions refer to negative ones.

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Indeed, the media lives on the mother’s milk of negativity (you may have heard the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads”). Negativity bias in the media received a lot of attention a few years ago during the financial crisis, a truly horrific event that needed no further hype. We now know about “black swans,” the unexpected and statistically very rare events like the subprime housing implosion, which, when they actually occur, can wreak all kinds of havoc.

This has spawned a posse of economists and financial experts who consistently warn us of all manner of imminent disasters — the unraveling of the European Union, the unsustainability of the U.S. economic model, the lurking disaster of federal reserve policy and so on. For the most part, these experts do their research and make very compelling arguments. The problem is, I think they’re looking for black swans around every corner. It’s been five years now and they’re still looking.

This constant fear-driven narrative stokes our natural biological fears and unnecessarily raises our stress levels. More importantly, it often causes us to make unsound financial decisions such as putting all our money in gold, or selling off stock market holdings in 2009 or keeping all of our money in cash while the stock market has more than doubled.

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It’s easy to become so mesmerized with potential disasters that we forget that 99% of the time they never actually occur (Murphy's Law be damned). We tend to ignore positive trends including facts like cars are selling like hotcakes, the housing market is active and growing healthier, over 92% of us have jobs and the federal budget deficit projections have been dropping like a rock.

In fact, most of the world is not bleeding. The vast majority of human interactions are courteous, if not downright thoughtful. As social animals, we fundamentally like to help and be helpful. The positive aspects of our lives are so common that they're frequently overlooked.

So maybe it’s time that we take a good look. You can begin by giving equal attention to positive aspects of your life through active appreciation, gratitude practices and other tools of positive psychology. There's no denying real dangers and uncertainties in the world, but if you can view the positive along with the negative, you may find happier swimming in your corner of the pond.

Paul Norr is a holistic financial planner in Thousand Oaks, California and writes about Authentic Money Matters

Tags: investing