What is the negativity bias and why it is so strong today?

Negativity bias is a real thing. It is in our make-up as humans to have a tendency to view things negatively, so we are more likely to recall the poor parts of our day ahead of the pleasing parts, for example.

Negativity is not always a bad thing — it’s good to learn that very hot things can burn you —and being aware that we have a natural tendency to view things through a negative lens is actually very positive as it enables you to challenge your thinking.

Particularly now, it’s important for us to be aware of our negativity bias because we are inundated with negative messaging and news coverage. While knowing that bad news sells better than good news, this does not change the fact that when we watch, read or listen to the news, it is mostly negative. Current headlines illustrate this perfectly, such as the war in Ukraine, the spiralling cost of living, the predictions of the next COVID wave, the death of Shane Warne and so on.

In Wellbeing groups, Respectful Relationships classes, in Health lessons and in numerous discussions across all subjects, our teachers are challenging students to recognise their negativity bias and to find ways to work with it, or around it.

Self-awareness and challenging negative self-talk are taught and discussed because we want our students to be academic risk-takers. We want to help young people recognise when their internal voice is saying ‘I can’t do it’ and encourage them to instead say ‘If I have a go, I might just do this’ and, in time, to then say ‘I can do this.’ If a student is willing to look for and then take that first step, who knows they will end up?

Reflection, mindfulness and even something as simple as taking a deep breath can help people overcome their negativity bias. While mindfulness training and practice takes time, being truly present is achievable.

Being present, being aware of your own emotions and pausing to think and take deep breathes, give a person a chance to feel and recognise emotion. If it’s a negative emotion, question it and address it. In a classroom this is often seen in a reflective activity where students might be asked how and why they felt and acted in a certain situation. These reflections enable students to understand themselves and their emotions and perhaps their negativity bias.

Another way to overcome the negativity bias, and something to try at home, is to savour the positive moments now and to look forward to future positive moments. At the dinner table or just before bedtime, ask these two great questions:

1. What went well today?

2. What am I looking forward to tomorrow?

Answering these questions often takes some time and thought. It’s easier to answer ‘What went wrong today?’ and ‘What am I not looking forward to tomorrow?’ because of the negativity bias. However, to help our students think more positively and to help them address and overcome the negativity bias, these two questions are a great place to start. Try them sometime!

Best wishes,

Peter Shepard

Head of Wellbeing