Beating the Negativity Bias

I hadn’t heard of the negativity bias until this last year, during which I’ve studied how the brain works and learnt about mindfulness and Buddhism. It’s a little evolutionary gift Mother Nature gave us, to overestimate threats and hold onto negative thoughts/events instead of positive ones. It’s wonderful at keeping us out of danger – predators, ambushes –  but not so good for mental health.

It means we are biased towards the negative; wired to remember harsh rejections and bad reviews instead of the great ones. Researchers talk of the 5:1 ratio. For example, if you’ve treated someone badly, you’ll need to treat them well five times before their brain will equal out the negativity bias and allow that person to remember the good side of you as well.

This post is about making you aware of the problem, so that you can use this information to cope with the up and down path we tread along the journey to publication and beyond – and give yourself the thumbs-up.

Firstly – let me pass on one more thing that I’ve learnt – and bear with me, on this… Thoughts. They aren’t actually you. They are your brain reacting to stimuli. You can accept them – or not. For example, a bad review or rejection letter comes in. “I’m a useless author” you think. Um, no. You are not thinking this – your brain has thrown this idea into your mind, as a reaction to the bad news. This leaves you with two choices. You can accept it. Wallow. Throw a pity party. Comfort yourself with that packet of biscuits. Get cross. Or… you can dismiss it. Thank you brain, for that suggestion, but I disagree. Not everyone will like my work, I know that – and I also know that one unfavourable review or letter doesn’t mean I’m no good at being a writer.

Secondly – just being aware of the negativity bias gives you power. So, when something happens, in your writerly life, that gets you down, make a determined, conscious effort to remind yourself of all the good things. That reader who loved your book. The agent who encouraged you. That get-together where you made new author friends. The warm glow you got when you managed you write a chapter you really, really loved. Think positive. It can be irritating can’t it, when people say that’s what you should do? But  now you know the science behind it.  We need to think frequently and consciously think positively just to redress the balance of that negativity bias Mother Nature gave us. Remember the 5:1 ratio? That is what you are up against.

Thirdly – remember this word, to beat the negativity bias: PERSPECTIVE. There are many events in my writerly life that I’ve quaked about. Attending an author event. Meeting my publisher or agent for the first time. Reading reviews. Take the first time I headed down to London to meet my editor. Those negative thoughts started up. “I’ll be a disappointment.” “I’ll be found out as not really being up to the job.” “I’ll make a fool of myself.” “This meeting is a bad idea.”

Er, hello Mother Nature – thank you for over-estimating the threat, and if I was in the jungle, with my spear, amongst unfriendly natives, looking to catch aggressive, wild boar then you are doing a great job of keeping me vigilant and safe. But meeting my editor? Who must think I’m talented, otherwise why would she take me on? In a lovely part of London? With food and drink involved? THANKS BUT NO THANKS, THOSE THOUGHTS ARE NOT APPROPRIATE!

Fourthly – don’t project into the future, because the negativity bias LOVES this. You know that book release you have coming up, in two weeks? Don’t indulge in imagining everything that could go wrong. That you’ll get lots of bad reviews. People will hate the cover. Sales will be poor. It will mean the end of your whole career. You have no control over the future so why waste energy worrying about it? You know, by now, that Mother Nature has wired you to expect the worst. And how many times, in the past, have you worried about something yet it’s turned out fine? Mindfulness is a proven stress-buster and is all about concentrating just on the present moment. So don’t go back in time either. What’s done is done. Life moves on. Perceived failures, in the past, have no effect on your present (or future). Just concentrate on what you are doing right now, whether that is a new project or sending out another batch of submission letters. Projecting will only make you fearful and avoid new challenges.

Take my latest release, The New Beginnings Coffee Club. One storyline could be seen as controversial. If I’d focused on the bad reviews it might produce, or poor sales, I could have ducked out of meeting the challenge. As it is – touch wood – readers have loved that aspect of the story.

So don’t contemplate the negative “what ifs”. The chances are – whatever Mother Nature wants you to believe – they won’t happen.

Lastly – if you are going through a rough patch, being hard on yourself about your career or anything else, try writing a gratitude journal. I’ve been doing this for six months. Each night I write at least three things that I am grateful for. At first, when I was going through a rough patch, it seemed challenging but over time the process trains you to look for the positives and now I can easily list all kinds of things I am grateful for – a pleasant family evening, great weather, a good review. A productive day in the office, someone doing me a favour, an enjoyable phone call. It might sound silly, but buy yourself a lovely, new notebook and give it a go. We have Mother Nature to contend with here and she may not approve but my brain, for one, is now trained to look for the positives. These days my journal takes no time to fill in at all.

We all have miserable moments where we are hard on ourselves. Fed up with our lot. Feel like giving up. Just try to remember – mental health problems aside – this is partly a loss of perspective, due to our biological wiring. We just need to rewire and with a little practise that is possible.

21 comments

  1. Fiona Chapman says:

    Aww I love this, it really resonates with me and my own outlook on life. We allow our own thoughts and choose whether or not to embrace them or set them free. We’re the only ones in control of how we feel/react to something. Thanks for sharing Sam. Fab post xx

    • Sam Tonge says:

      Thanks Fiona. Yes, it is so liberating to realise that our thoughts aren’t necessarily us, and that they aren’t necessarily the truth. And choosing whether to take them on board, or not, is very empowering xx

  2. Sue Blackburn says:

    Wow what a fantastic post Sam. I love anything to do with mindfulness, positive thinking and always try to live that way anyway, Not always easy but the alternative isn’t much cop!

    You say you learnt about Mindfulness. Is that through books? Can you recommend any?

    • Sam Tonge says:

      Yes, it is surprising! You have to be disciplined about doing it at first, but it soon becomes a habit. Go for it!

  3. Joey (BTaC Blog) says:

    I once read somewhere that the synaptic connections in the brain are strengthened by repeated use. So if you have a negative thought over and over again, your brain strengthens that connection and the negative thought is more easily accessed. It works with anxieties, fears… all of it. So you can train your brain to think the thoughts you want. I work on this constantly in my own thought life.

    This is a great post. You suggestions and examples are spot on.

    • Sam Tonge says:

      That’s really interesting, Joey, and makes complete sense. I have various phone apps that throw up a positive quote every day – hopefully that is one little thing strengthening my brain’s positive connections! Thanks for popping by.

  4. Caroline Venables says:

    Loved this thank you. I am a chronic over thinker. I also keep meaning to start a gratitude journal.

  5. Tracy Burton says:

    What an inspiring and thought-provoking post, Sam. One of my most-hated phrases is ‘I couldn’t find fault …’ as if the speaker must look for and rule out the negatives in any situation before they will even consider the positives. A dear friend died suddenly six weeks ago. He was the kind of person who lit up a room and was sweet, funny and kind. His legacy is that his friends – myself included – are trying much harder to nicer people and that includes focusing on the positives and all the things we have to be thankful for … which, let’s face it, are many. I love the idea of the gratitude journal too … might start that one myself.

    • Sam Tonge says:

      Thanks Tracy – he sounds like a special person. I’ve found, once you make the effort to be kinder, grateful and more positive, over time it comes naturally (although there is always the odd slip. We are only human 🙂 ) I think the world needs more kindness, especially at the moment. Yes, try the journal – if nothing else, it’s a great excuse for buying another notebook!

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