Knowledge Bomb: Negativity Bias

The scene: The African savannah, millennia ago. Og and Thrak are out and about one lovely morning, not too far from the clan HQ, when they hear a rumble in the bushes, but a distinctly different rumble in the bushes. Thrak doesn’t stick around—he’s gone! Og, recognizing the new quality of the rumble, takes a moment to question whether this might not be a threat, but actually an opportunity. Should I go explore?

In his hesitation, Og takes an instant hit to his odds of sticking around long enough to pass on his DNA. Thrak more likely ends up within the pool of folks that we get to call great-great-great-great-you-get-the-idea-grandparents. Lather, rinse, and repeat this scene thousands of times and you get…us.

We are the descendants of the savants of risk aversion—those people who were the very best at not placing themselves in the path of existential threat.

This is one key reason why bad is stronger than good in our cognition. Even when at equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on our psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things. For most of our history, this kept us alive. It’s still an automatic reflex.

Here’s the twist—even though Negativity Bias is automatic, and therefore requires almost no effort on our part, it also sounds very smart. Research shows that book reviewers who tend to be more negative are perceived as more intelligent, competent, and expert than positive reviewers, even when the content of the positive review was independently judged as being of higher quality and greater forcefulness. Apply this to a room full of ambitious people intent on upward mobility and you may find that everyone is jockeying to be the smartest—as defined by the most cleverly negative person—in the room. New ideas don’t stand a chance if we’re not conscious about what’s going on with Negativity Bias.

The big boss merely asking for innovation doesn’t always mean we’re in the clear. One study titled “The Bias Against Creativity,” looked at our deep-rooted negative perception of creativity and creative ideas, even when creative ideas were directly requested. What? The research showed that people had a hard time understanding how novelty and practicality could go hand-in-hand. The more unique the idea, the more its usefulness was questioned— and ultimately, the perception of risk overcame the need for newness. Everyone wants to go to creativity heaven, but no one wants to die. According to this research, the bias against creativity is particularly problematic because people are not aware of what is driving their negative evaluations and therefore can’t correct for them. Again, the nonconscious gremlins!

We humans are incredibly skilled in finding the potential problems in any idea. We’re better at coming up with reasons why we can’t do things than with new ideas themselves! 

Wanna learn more about Negativity Bias, loss aversion, and how to get better at taking the creative leap? Check out these kick-ass books.


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