Transforming the Negativity Bias

This starts in grade school. Two kids are whispering and you assume it’s about you. Your boss hasn’t responded to your email in a week and you think she’s getting ready to demote you. Your child is late getting home and you assume they have been in a car accident. It’s all hardwired into your brain. Your ancestors didn’t wait around to find out if the rustle in the bushes was a saber tooth tiger. They ran. If they didn’t run, you wouldn’t be here.


The problem is that this constant focus on the negative in today’s day and age, is bad for your body and brain. If something good and something bad happen in the same day, you end up focusing on the bad. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, “Over and over, the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things.” As Tony Robbins wrote for the New York Times, “It turns out that cultivating positive emotions such as joy, contentment, interest, pride and love pays huge dividends.” The good news is that you can rewire your brain towards the positive.

Here is how to transform your negativity bias:

  • Gratitude.  Taking stock of what is going right. It could be as simple as a roof over your head, being grateful for your child graduating college, or having your boss actively listen to you. I personally have been writing in a gratitude journal for over five years. I used to do it in the evening and then switched to the morning. I used to write five individual things like “Daddy”, “Baci”, “Dinner”, “Natalie” and “Ben”. Now I write three things and say, “I am grateful for Janine’s support. I am grateful for Joe’s attentive listening. I am grateful for a great dinner at SoCo.” It’s more specific and writing the word “grateful” has a bigger impact. Be grateful.


  • Store.  Look back right now at something that has happened positive today. I just had delicious bacon and eggs with my daughter. She really enjoyed the bacon. Now I need to stop, dwell and think about that positive experience, while I take a few breaths in order to store the positive experience in my head. This is an idea posited by Rick Hanson in a TedTalk. When you relive a positive experience in your mind for even a few seconds, it rewires your brain towards the positive. Be sure to be storing the positive experiences.


  • Score.  I struggle with this one. I even have Positivity as one of my top 5 from StrengthsFinders. According to John Gottman, there needs to be at least a 3 to 1 ratio and, ideally, a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative feedback you give the people in your life. So try and keep score. Are you telling your kids everything they did wrong and how bad their grades are or looking at what went right? Like, “Hey, thanks for getting up on time” or “Thanks for putting your books away.” We all want praise. It makes us feel better and with us all being hardwired for negativity, remembering that the one criticism you give will likely live on and all the positivity will float away. Keep score of your sincere positive feedback.


  • Visualize.  As Marelisa Fabrega wrote for Daring to Live Fully, “Whenever something negative happens to you—for example, someone says something mean to you—visualize a drop of black ink falling into a large container of clear water. Although at first the ink is very black, it quickly mixes with the rest of the water until it’s gone, and all you can see is the clear water again.” I really like the image of the negativity diluting into clear sparkling water.


  • Reframe.  Coaching is all about reframing. Coaching is so beneficial because the coach isn’t connected to the outcome. They bring a different perspective and put a different frame around it. My daughter and I just attended a lovely 6-course dinner. One of the courses was not very good. All of the rest were stunning. I started getting wrapped up in the one bad course and started to regret the entire evening. Luckily, my daughter was able to reframe it for me. “Hey, so one course wasn’t so great, but the rest was terrific and it was a magical evening.” It was. A perfect sunset. Lovely wine. Delicious food. Great conversation. Reframe towards the positive.


  • Realistic optimism. As Tony Schwarz wrote for the New York Times, “The notion is not to become an uncritical Pollyanna – but instead to practice “realistic optimism.” That means telling yourself the most hopeful and empowering story possible about any given situation without denying or minimizing the facts.” Thus, you aren’t in denial but you can create a story that has a more positive outcome.


Either way you flow through your day, your positivity or negativity are contagious. Try and spread the positive stuff and ignite others.

6 Steps to Realistic Optimism.

I’ve written about optimism before and, recently, have adjusted my viewpoint.  In reading several articles and the book “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” by Tony Schwartz, I’ve come to realize that optimism is critical but, more importantly, it has to be realistic.  Tony gives the example of a 5’4′ guy who wants to play basketball.  Unrealistic optimism would show up as this guy wants to play in the NBA.  Realistic optimism shows up as this guy wants to be the best basketball player he can be.  It’s an adjustment in perspective or focus, the ability to see that it might be a struggle and it’s going to take hard work but you feel like you can persevere. 6 Steps to Realistic Optimism 2

Basically, it’s turning blind faith or just plain wishing into reality.  I’ve wanted to go to Paris for the last twenty plus years.  I have yet to go.  I know I’m going to go but the reality of two kids in college, a mortgage, my parents now living ten feet away…well, the reality is, that it’s a few years off.  I am confident that I will be standing on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées at some point with a warm baguette in hand, it’s just going to take some planning and patience. 

So how do you go from wishing to reality?  Here are some tips.

1. No Storytelling.  I see this in clients all the time.  They tell themselves that they can’t do something.  I can’t get that promotion.  I can’t get a CPA.  I can’t move to San Francisco.  The old Henry Ford adage is right.  “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” It is not possible to succeed if you think you can’t.  Stop telling yourself stories.

2. Lenient. As Tony Schwartz recommends, you need to be lenient and forgiving in your evaluation of past events.  So if you didn’t pass the exam the first time, meh…you were having a bad day.  Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep.  Cut yourself some slack.  Forgive yourself.  I cook on a regular basis; I can assure you that if all I focused on was my failures, we would be eating out for Thanksgiving.  Be lenient in your view of past events.

3. Gratitude. Frequently show gratitude for your current situation.  Do you have electricity? A roof?  A job?  Dwell on the positive.  In a consumer society, we can constantly focus on what we don’t have.  This will leave you empty.  You will be constantly looking to fill the shelves and your attic with things.  Appreciate the present in all its imperfection.  Got gratitude?

4. Possible. Mission possible.  This is the glass half full mentality.  I can remember telling my doctor that I was planning to run a half marathon.  I was worried that I wouldn’t do it fast enough.  He said, “You can always walk it”.  What a relief! Refocusing on what could be, made it attainable.  Focus on what is possible.

5. Acknowledge. The key to success is acknowledging that it won’t be easy. Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen did a study with obese women.  The women who thought that losing weight would be a walk in the park lost less weight than those who understood that there may be some adversity along the way.  Think through what possible adversity you might encounter along the way.  Krispy Kremes at the breakfast meeting, free toffee samples at the grocery store and sub freezing temperatures for your 6 AM run.  Acknowledge adversity but don’t let it stop you.

6. Honest. Be honest with yourself.  If you are 6’4″, a career as a jockey isn’t likely to be fruitful.  If it’s your passion and you understand that you will never race in the Triple Crown, then go for it.  Make sure you are realistic in your self view.  I remember being on the swim team in high school.  I was the slowest on the team but by year end, I had improved my time the most.  That’s all that matters.  I knew I wasn’t going to win any races but focusing on my own improvement paid dividends.  Be honest.

To move from wishing to success involves optimism with a reality check.