Transformation! I could use some of that! Romans 12:2 says transformation comes by the renewal of my mind; What does that even mean? As we explore this we’re looking at “Cognitive Biases”: Big words that simply mean: natural-ways-of-thinking-that-can-get-in-our-way. What kinds of thinking do we need to confront as we allow space for the renewal of our mind?

Negativity Bias

What Is It?

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.” – Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

We, humans, have a natural tendency to give more weight and importance to bad experiences than we do to good ones. In fact, some research indicates that negative emotions and experiences have an impact 3-5 times stronger than positive emotions and experiences. Most theories attribute this to learned survival implications. Bottom line is that the consequences of ignoring real dangers and threats (possibly death) are more serious than they are when we miss an opportunity for pleasure or happiness. So, in order to survive, we have essentially learned to pay more attention to the negative, be more attuned to it, remember it better and, therefore, repeat it more often. Dr. Hanson, Ph.D. puts it like this: Your brain is continually looking for bad news. As soon as it finds some, it fixates on it with tunnel vision, fast-tracks it into memory storage, and then reactivates it at the least hint of anything even vaguely similar. But the good news gets a kind of neural shrug: “uh, whatever.” – Velcro for the negative, Teflon for the Positive.

This isn’t always bad. As indicated above, a naïve, approach to life with no caution or awareness of that which might threaten our survival would leave us incredibly vulnerable to harm or even death. And really this isn’t even something we do intentionally; it’s a part of our built-in survival instinct. So, what’s the problem?


Why Does It Matter?

The problem is when we allow this bias, intended as a caution mechanism, to distort the way we see ourselves, others, and the world we live. We can come to ignore those things that are positive in our lives. We could actually move to the place where we filter out of our awareness the ways that God shows up in our every-day lives – we can lose our sensitivity to beauty, love, joy, comfort, hope. Ultimately, if we lean too hard into this negativity bias and allow it to grow unchecked, we can forget the very basis for truth. It can begin to shape who we are and what we believe. When I look for reasons to believe the world is negative or hopeless, I will see them, and when I see that the world is negative and hopeless, I will look for reasons to believe the world is negative and hopeless, and when I look for reasons to believe the world is negative and hopeless… (see where this goes?) I have wondered if this is what Jesus is talking about when he warns, “… if your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness….” (Matthew 6:23)

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What does your brain on negativity look like? Research indicates that people with an overall mindset that gives heavy attention to the negative, ignoring the positive, is significantly vulnerable to fear, anxiety, stress, pessimism, regret, cynicism, burnout, anger, depression and unresolved conflict. In addition, this mindset leads to low resilience, slower recovery from illness and trauma, and increased negative effects from past painful experiences.


What Can We Do About It?

Just because our negativity bias is built-in doesn’t mean we have no control over it, nor does it mean we should pretend all is well and ignore the real pain and hard places in our lives. But we can challenge the negative beliefs that come from this bias and in so doing we re-establish the basis for truth.

  • Self-awareness is the first step. Just knowing this is a natural bias of our mind has some pretty big implications. We all have it, so let’s not assume it isn’t there and let’s get intentional about containing it and keeping it in its place.
  • Next, we can practice self-compassion. Instead of being self-critical, let’s allow God’s grace to flow through us to ourselves and practice being patient, kind and loving to ourselves. What does God think about me?
  • Practice compassion toward others. Understand that everyone deals with their own negativity bias. We can be more generous with our grace and understanding when we encounter it in our relationships. Am I reinforcing your negative bias or am I offering a positive alternative?
  • Practice gratitude. This is one of the most effective ways to give attention to the positive. As we notice, talk about and maybe even journal what we are thankful for, we are training – renewing our mind to look for and notice what we are thankful for… and then? We will eventually start seeing more of what we are looking for!
  • Celebrate! One of the ways we can increase our sensitivity to the positive is to get intentional and creative about the ways we take time to honor and appreciate each other, beauty, happiness, laughter and the good things in our lives. By celebrating, we reinforce the value and impact of these positive experiences and relationships in our mind – that’s renewal!
  • Be realistic. This is not a move to “positive thinking” that ignores realistic evaluation or removes our capacity to acknowledge pain. There is a way to experience pain in a way that honors God and others. We need to be real by acknowledging potential risks and even learn to value the experience of shared suffering; but to do so with a balanced eye for truth, goodness, hope, and beauty will make us more authentic and open to the path of healing.
  • Neuroscience indicates that it is very difficult (if not impossible) to stop thinking about something or feeling an emotion. However, it is highly possible, and very effective to replace one thought or emotion with another. As we become more aware of how this negativity bias is showing up in ways we don’t want it to, we can make choices to direct our attention toward more healthy thoughts and experiences, or at least entertain a perspective that offers balance. When we have a hard time coming up with something positive to think about, we have some help: “Summing it all up friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse…”(Phil 4:8-9msg) Hmmm.. maybe I’ll start a list….
  • Get coached. Sometimes we just need someone to partner with us, helping to reframe and holding us accountable until new thought habits can be formed. Contact me to find out more about working with a professional Life Coach to design a strategy for overcoming negativity.

What do you think? Is it time for some renewal?

Writer: Cindy Schmelzenbach