Have you ever noticed that there seem to be more words in the English dictionary to describe bad, scary, or negative experiences? Or when putting together a pros-cons list, it's often easier to identify the cons first? Think back to your most influential memories - do you recall the happiest day of your life, or are the first memories to come to mind memories of trauma, loss, pain, and despair? Have people ever called you the "Debbie Downer" of the group?
You're not the only one. We all have an affinity for the negative. More importantly though, it's not bad.
This doesn't mean that we "like" negative experiences or that we have more negative experiences than positive ones. Instead, it suggests that we process positive versus negative emotions differently. In 2004, Schrauf and Sanchez conducted a study on emotional vocabulary across different cultures. They gave participants two minutes to write down as many emotions as they could. The researchers found that, regardless of the culture assessed, people listed more negative emotions than positive or neutral ones. Schrauf and Sanchez explained these results using a theory that suggests that negative emotions or experiences are mentally processed deeper and in more detail than other emotions, and this would result in a more detailed vocabulary of negative emotions. This is consistent with the negativity bias, the idea that we judge negative information to be more important than positive information because of its evolutionary significance (Rozin & Royzman,2001).
Communication about negative emotions and events has kept us alive. All of our ancestors had to learn to communicate about these dangers effectively, or else you or I wouldn't be here now. Imagine this: a caveman spends the whole day walking through the woods. He discovers some delicious berries and a clean stream of drinking water. Along his walk he also encounters an animal he has never seen before. The animal bites him. It hurts. His leg swells and he feels feverish. Soon after, the caveman returns to his community. He is not interested in telling his community about the delicious berries or clean water, nor is his community interested in hearing about them. They immediately ignore the positives and focus on the negative: his swelling leg. They know something is wrong, and become afraid. Afraid not only of what happened to their friend, but also afraid that this could happen to them. To ease their anxiety, they try to get more information. What happened? What did this? What did it look like? Where did you see this animal? Of course, cavemen didn't have overly sophisticated means of communicating, but they might have used drawings, mimicry, grunts, and things like that. Regardless, the end result would be some description of the animal - its long, thin body, its sharp teeth, and its rattling sound. The other cavemen and cavewomen feel as if they now know to avoid this animal should they come across one in the future. Communicating about the negative offers them all protection.
Nowadays, it's a bit different. Always focusing on the negative can be a social turn-off, especially if someone seems to almost exclusively talk about negatives. That person is likely avoided by others, or endured with exasperation.
Consider the effect that always seeing the negative has on a person. This type of view can make a person unreasonably afraid of living his or her life. It can make him or her feel helpless and as if the world is full of horrible people and that terrible things are not just possible - but likely and expected! Knowing that we are primed to communicate negative information, how can we prevent the negative from becoming our narrative or focus?
The first step is to understand that we are primed to focus on the negative, and this priming developed to ensure our survival. Everyone has this bias. Thus, always or often considering the negative does not mean that there is something wrong with you. Second, recognize that over the years, our fears or worries about the negative may have caused us to develop a reduced threshold for determining what is good or bad, kind of like a feather triggering a mine to explode. Third, challenge yourself by reality-testing the negative thoughts or feelings in your mind. You can do this by asking yourself the following questions:
1. Am I currently in danger?
2. Is this negative situation happening right now, and if so, what can I do about it? If it hasn't happened yet, or has already happened, what is the advantage of thinking about this now?
3. What evidence do I have that supports this negative thought or feeling? Do I have evidence that does not support this negative thought or feeling?
4. What is the effect of communicating about this negative information and with this particular person/group of people? Will it feel good to get it off my chest? Will it make me more anxious? Could it alienate me from this person/people, and if so, who else could I talk to about this?
These types of reality-testing questions are commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and can help decrease a person's negative emotions. Look for future blog posts in which I will discuss other ways of using CBT in your daily life.
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Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and social psychology review, 5(4), 296-320.
Schrauf, R. W., & Sanchez, J. The Preponderance of Negative Emotion Words in the Emotion Lexicon: A Cross-generational and Cross-linguistic Study. Jeanette Altarriba and Tina M. Canary: The Influence of Emotional, 266.