Monday Mornings with Madison

Thinking Errors and Business: Negativity Bias – Part 1

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Estimated Read Time: 5 min.

The Problem with Negativity Bias and Business

People regularly have ‘thinking errors’.  These errors of the mind are generally instinctive.  One thinking error that influences behavior is called Negativity Bias.  This particular thinking error actually has a profound effect on business in the areas of strategic planning, employee satisfaction, retention and productivity and customer behavior. Thus, it is important to understand not only what Negativity Bias is, but how it affects the workplace and what can be done to mitigate, if not overcome, this thinking error.

What is Negativity Bias?

According to Danny Penman, Ph.D. and Vidyamala Burch in their article Rewiring the Brain to Heal, Negativity Bias refers to the idea that things of a negative nature — unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and social interactions, or harmful or traumatic events and experiences — have a greater effect on one’s psychological state, processes and decisions than do neutral or positive ones.  This is true even when they are of equal intensity.[1] Or, put more simply, bad is stronger than good.[2]

Negativity Bias stems from a basic human instinct to survive.  According to Dr. Rick Hanson, people are motivated to chase carrots and stay away from sticks.[3] In life, we learn and work because we are chasing the carrots we want such as position, money, respect and recognition.  Those carrots pay for the things we need such as shelter, clothing, food, water and close relationships.  The need to eat, drink and connect with others is hard-wired in us in order to survive.  But, we are even more motivated to avoid sticks, such as getting fired from a job, having a hostile confrontation with a coworker or client, or getting injured at work.  That is because our need for the carrots is often tied to avoiding the stick.  If you are not able to grab a carrot today, you have a chance to grab another carrot tomorrow.  But, if you are hit by the proverbial stick, such as losing a job or damaging a relationship, it may affect your ability to go after another carrot tomorrow.  Thus, there is more urgency to avoid sticks than there is to pursue carrots.   That then explains why people react more strongly to negative feedback than positive ones.

In fact, we can actually see this reaction in human brains.  Negative events or interactions produce more neural activity in our brains than positive ones that are equally intense.  Moreover, negative experiences and interactions are more likely to be identified faster and easier and then remembered than positive ones.  For instance, in many studies tracking brain activity, people spotted and identified angry faces faster than happy ones in pictures.  This was true even when they saw angry expressions only for a tenth of a second (which was too fast to have conscious recognition of them).   The brain’s limbic system registered the negative feedback.  The same is not true of positive experiences.  We are fine-turned to recognize and register danger or trouble, which makes us more vulnerable to being intimidated.

According to Hanson, “the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. On the other hand, positive experiences – unless they are very novel or intense – have standard issue memory systems, and they must be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones register and remain every time….  The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”  Every single bad experience stays with you but it takes a lot for good experiences to register.  That is why we learn faster from pain or painful experiences than from positive or pleasant ones.  Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, TED Talk presenter, writer, speaker and Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at the NYU-Stern School of Business, put it this way, “Over and over, the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things.”[4]

Negativity Bias at Work

Now consider this fact in the context of business.  Because our brains are hard-wired to be frightened and intimidated by threats, recognize every bad experience quickly, and save negative experiences more readily, Negativity Bias impacts companies in a variety of important ways.

1. Negativity Bias in Employees – Employees are not only vulnerable to small things that make them feel threatened such as negative coworker interactions on an interpersonal level, they commonly also fear larger organizational threats such as bullying, harassment and intimidation by management, reorganization or restructuring efforts by leadership, and complaints by clients.  Negativity bias happens even with imagined threats – so-called ‘paper tigers’ conjured by the hair-trigger alarm in the brain that registers and fixates on even the smallest slights.  Thus, an employee might fixate on a manager who is a bully or plays favorites and that employee might eventually find another job if the threat (the stick) was minor or even imagined.

2.  Negativity Bias affects Productivity - This bias toward negative thoughts has a profound effect on productivity.  Negative thinking can influence not just how employees feel, but also how they perform, individually and collaboratively.  More about that below.  Since there is a propensity for remembering every negative event, companies must work much harder to provide many positive experiences to counter any negative ones.

3. Negativity Bias in Leadership – Similarly, leaders will often focus and fixate on competitive threats instead of pursuing available opportunities.  This is a deep flaw in strategic planning that leads companies to waste a lot of resources focusing on areas that deliver less revenue to the bottom line.

4. Negativity Bias in Customers – Customers who have a bad experience with a company will remember it more clearly, even while many mildly positive experiences go unnoticed.  A customer must have five strong positive experiences just to counteract one very negative experience.  So consider how powerful negative reviews can be on websites such as Yelp, Open Table, Angie’s List, Google or other review sites.  One very negative review can have much more impact than several mildly positive ones.  This affects not only the client who had the bad experience but also every person who reads it.

If negativity bias sounds like a daunting dilemma, don’t fret.  There are ways to overcome Negativity Bias, or at least mitigate the effects on business.  Tune in next week to learn five ways you can reduce the effect of Negativity Bias in yourself, your employees or coworkers and your customers.  Stay tuned.

Quote of the Week

“When it comes to negativity bias, you need a negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.” Distinguished Professor Richard Boyatzis

[1] February 29, 2016, Danny Penman, Ph.D. and Vidyamala Burch, Rewiring the Brian to Heal, Pain Pathways Magazine,

[2] September 8, 2010, Robert I Sutton, Bad is Stronger than Good:  Evidence-Based Advice for Bosses, Harvard Business Review,

[4] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis:  Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Basic Books, New York, NY, 2006.


© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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