Overcoming Negativity Bias

As human beings and writers, we all struggle with maintaining a healthy balance between the positives and negatives of life. A disappointing review, a less-than-successful launch, critique feedback that wasn’t what we’d anticipated, a manuscript disfigured by an editor’s red strokes—it’s so easy to get stuck focusing on the “bad” rather than the good. I find it encouraging to know that this isn’t us just being sulky and self-centered; this propensity is part of who we are. Elizabeth Foster is here today to explain the psychology behind negativity bias, and how to beat it.

I am, by nature, an optimistic person. Like everyone else, I am averse to pain. However, writing comes with its very own set of pain receptors. As the release date of my first book draws closer, I have been struck down with launch flu: an emotional throwback to those early days of writing, in which I navigated a whole constellation of self-doubt, during which my sentiments toward my own writing seesawed from wild hope to utter despair.

So what exactly is this propensity of ours to let positive feedback slide on by, while being negativity sponges? I’m not one to reject praise outright. I welcome and appreciate it, but a bouquet just doesn’t have the sticking power of a brickbat. Am I particularly thin-skinned? Do I need to develop a thicker one? Being psychologically-minded, I went hunting for answers.

I was surprised to discover that there’s nothing unusual about our acute sensitivity to criticism. It’s completely natural to obsess more over bad news than good. It’s built in to us, and it’s called the negativity bias.

negativity bias, feedback, becoming positive, writing, critique

As humans, we are hard-wired to react more strongly to negative stimuli. From an evolutionary viewpoint, we are less advanced than we think. Our amygdala is vigilant, always on the lookout, primed to detect threats. Early humans had to focus on the negatives – the nearest threat – at all times, or they would perish. Research on memory has shown that negatives burrow right in to our brains, transferring immediately to implicit (long-term) memory. Positives do slide right on by, literally – unless we hang on to them. In fact, it has been shown, through research, that it is only when positives are held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds that they move from short-term to long-term memory.

So how do we hold on to positive news for more than a millisecond? How do we train ourselves to focus on the good stuff, rather than just ruminating on the bad? Plenty has been written on combatting the second, but not much about the first.

Here are some suggestions:

Give yourself permission. We are so primed to deal with negativity and threat that we don’t often let ourselves ‘waste’ time enjoying positivity. If you’re a true workaholic who finds this hard to do, think of it as a future ‘investment’: a brain that’s not weighed down with self-doubt and anxiety is, in the long run, a far more productive one!

Next, do a stocktake. Gather up positive sentiments about your writing or other achievements – maybe even in a single file on your desktop or in a journal, so you can dip into it whenever criticism gets to you.

Finally, link the positivity with emotion. Positive experiences which carry an emotional charge are the ones that make it into our long-term memory banks. The rest, untethered, float away.

According to psychologist Rick Hanson, this linking process is a seemingly simple one: you have to literally let that initial feeling of warmth from good news sink into you, and hold it there. In theory, this sounds effective, but how do we put this into practice? How, exactly, do we ‘hold on’ to something as ephemeral as the warmth of praise for as long as a dozen seconds?

Well, we actually do something similar all the time, whenever we ruminate on negative criticism. When we are criticized, we feel it in our body: we go into shock, our heart rate spikes, as we examine critiques from all angles, questioning how we could have done better. The trick to retaining positive sentiment is much the same: take the time to mull over compliments about your writing, and allow your body to experience them as well, creating a sensory association which will carry those memory traces all the way into implicit memory.

positive thoughts positive thinking positive feedback writing critique

For example: as you absorb a compliment, imagine the enjoyment of sinking into a warm bath, or the sun on your skin on a winter’s day, or your hands cupped around a warming mug of something. Or literally take yourself somewhere else – go for a walk in a nature, near water, anywhere that predisposes you to a pleasant reverie. Spend a few moments immersed in the beauty of your surroundings, and link it to the beauty of someone’s kind words to you. As writers, we strive to immerse our readers in a sensory world – there’s no reason we can’t apply the same techniques to our harried writerly selves!

Immersing yourself in this feel-good soup isn’t a waste of time or an act of conceit: it’s an act of self-care, which helps build your resilience. The point of this exercise isn’t to ignore criticism, which can be incredibly helpful at times, but to provide a buffer of positive experiences to fall back on when you feel attacked. If you develop an internal sense of balance, you’re less likely to swing from proud highs to abysmal lows with each review, and more likely to take criticism in stride, improving your writing in the process.

As the launch of my own debut novel draws closer, the question remains: will I be able to deal with the snark which, in our current climate, inevitably comes the way of almost all authors? I don’t know – I’m not there yet. What I do know is that I want to enjoy my future writing life, and not be always looking over my back for slings and arrows. Maybe by practicing these habits and actively embracing the positive, I’ll be able to do just that.

Keep a green bough in your heart, and a singing bird will come. Lao Tzu

Are there any compliments you’ve received about your writing, or other accomplishments, that you’ve never really taken the time to appreciate? Don’t be shy – I’d love to hear them. Share below!

Elizabeth Foster hails from Sydney, Australia, and on her way to becoming a writer, picked up a degree in psychology: hence her fascination with behavior and the brain. She now spends her days spinning stories about other worlds. Her first novel, Esme’s Wish, a fantasy/mystery for younger teens, will be published by Odyssey Books in September 2017. You can find out more about her journey here, and connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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21 Responses to Overcoming Negativity Bias

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 06-29-2017 | The Author Chronicles

  2. Hi Elizabeth,
    I totally agree with your post. We all tend to focus more on the negatives, especially perfectionists like me. To help combat this, I keep tangible reminders of my success displayed throughout the house: my writing awards and publicity, such as newspaper articles and cover photos of local magazines, even my horse show ribbons. In addition to writing, I’m an amateur dressage rider and those ribbons and trophies remind me every day that I’m a winner, even when I don’t feel like one.

  3. Jeffrey McChesney says:

    Great article. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the positive and focus on the negative, allowing it to bring you down. Good ideas on remembering the positive. I’ll have to try them out.

  4. Marie McLean says:

    This was a really helpful article, Elizabeth. I liked the practical suggestions you’ve provided to make it possible to retain positive comments for the longer term.
    Best wishes for your book release!

  5. Great article, thank you! A joy to read this learning from a writer’s sensibility. We have far more power than many of us realise and learning to hold the positive in this way, over time, you start to realise just how much you can craft your way of seeing and reacting to the world, in a way that truly serves you and the wider world.

  6. Mark says:

    No, no , this is all wrong. You have to do what I do. When you receive five positives and one negative, dwell on that one negative for days and weeks on end and ignore the positives you’ve received. It’s so productive, you can’t believe it!

    🙂

    • I think you’re probably speaking for everyone there, Mark! It really does feel so much more natural to do exactly that. Our brain seems to want us to go over and over anything negative to make sure we’ve ‘got’ it!

  7. Julie Hiner says:

    WOW!!!! Beautifully written. I JUST added to my list of to do to gather all the positive feedback I have received….cause I really your idea of having it as a list that you can look at. And I need to really let those words sink in more.

    Thank so much for sharing !!!

    • Thanks so much, Julie! It really is a different way of internalising praise, very much related to savouring it more. I hope you get as much out of this process as I have. 🙂

  8. Sheri Levy says:

    This was a perfect post to read today!I am getting ready to have my second book launched. I worried if the book was going to be worthy of being read. I have ARCs this time and I have had six wonderful reviews, so far! I’ve let everyone’s words soak-in and feel excited and thrilled. I will rejoice in writing the next novel!

  9. This is such a struggle for so many. Any tips on how to turn our brains more toward the positive are welcome! Thanks, Elizabeth.

  10. Very interesting article, Elizabeth. I am a brain nerd and found it fascinating how much negativity is retained naturally while positivism is not. It makes sense when you think of our primal instincts and our fight-or-flight responses–we are hardwired to notice the negative because it exposes us.

    Thanks so much for hanging out with us today! 🙂

    • Thanks Angela, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Memory is such a fascinating topic. Rick Hanson explains it this way. “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.” I think that says it all 🙂

  11. Irene says:

    As a psychologist , I agree with all you say. However, I found a much easier way. Just turn it over to God and let her figure it out. That way you can relax and move on.

  12. paula cappa says:

    Wonderful post today and some new insights for me, Elizabeth. I especially like your “a brain that’s not weighed down with self-doubt and anxiety is, in the long run, a far more productive one!” And “link the positive with emotion” is a good one. Thanks for brightening my thoughts on all this.

  13. Nick says:

    Thoughtful analysis, Appreciate the tips on dealing with negative feedback/ emotion and keeping yourself in a good headspace.

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