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.