The term negativity bias was coined by psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman, who discovered through their research in 2001 that humans tend to be innately pessimistic. They found that human attention directs more towards negative stimuli than positive stimuli across various domains of life. In other words, as humans, our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative events in our life than positive. Why is this the case? Because it is part of our evolutionary instincts to survive!
Let’s go way, way back to the times of the Homo Sapiens, the species we descend from. It was more important for a homo sapien’s survival to remember the saber-tooth cat that nearly ate him alive rather than remember how good his hunt was that day. Remembering the negative event of that day will keep him vigilant on his hunt the next time and remind him to take a different path, which is more likely to him alive. This is the same reason why we feel anxiety – our body’s response to the alert system that goes off in the part of our brain that is responsible for our survival instincts.
How does the negativity bias show up in relationships?
We tend to pay more attention to the negative qualities about our partner, or the negative events in our relationship. If we remember how our partner hurt us the last time, we are in a better position to protect ourselves from their hurtful actions and/or words the next time. Because of this negativity bias, we fail to pay as much attention to the positive things happening in our relationship or the positive qualities our partner exhibits. This also supports the finding of John Gottman, a renowned psychologist and researcher famous for his study on married couples, that it takes five positive interactions to outweigh the damage of one negative interaction!
If negativity bias is part of my human instinct, then what can I do to reduce it in my relationship? The answer is simple enough: you can reduce your human tendency to focus on negative instances in your relationship by choosing to notice the positive qualities of your partner, such as the things they do each day which you appreciate about them. It could be something pleasant they said to you to make you smile or laugh, an act of kindness or love, or the reasons why you are in a relationship with them – what you love, respect, and value about them. When you do this with intention every day, you will begin to perceive your partner and relationship in a (more) positive light and remember less of any negative qualities and instances that happened throughout the week.
Intentionally focusing on positive qualities can have a positive impact on your mood, thoughts, feelings, and even behaviors, which in return creates more pleasant interactions between two people. If you take this a step further and share with your partner what you appreciated about them every day, this can also result in increased feelings of connection between you and your partner. Try this: Both of you commit to noticing positive things about the other every day. At the end of each day, you both sit together for 15 minutes and take turns sharing (remembering to stick to the positive). Do this for one week, or one month, and at the end discuss what positive changes you noticed in your relationship with each other. The longer you do this, the more naturally your brain will begin to notice positive things around you!