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Countering Negativity Bias in Individuals and Business
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.  Or, put more simply, bad is stronger than good. As Dr. Rick Hansen said, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
So, if we know that Negativity Bias is counterproductive in many situations, how do we overcome it or at least mitigate its effect?
1. Look for the Good – Individuals need to make a conscious effort to look for the positive aspects of every experience. This will take work since it is not something that comes naturally. Take active measures to notice the good in the world… in every interaction, experience and thought. Pay attention to any instinctive attempt to dismiss or deny positive feelings and or to focus on negative ones. Choose not focus on the negative. Give the benefit of the doubt as to the reasons behind anything that feels threatening, as that might just be a paper tiger. Do this regularly every day until it becomes a habit.
2. Savor Positive Experiences – Each person should not just seek but also take time to dwell on positive experiences. Allow 30 seconds to enjoy fully a good experience or positive comment. By elongating our positive sensations, more neurons have time to fire and wire together in response to the stimulus. This solidifies the experience in memory. Jot down the positive experiences and make a point of commenting about this with others. If someone does something good, recognize it. Although people are predisposed to collecting and clinging to negative memories, it can be reversed by intentionally developing a more diverse and deeply rooted array of positive memories.
3. Preserve Employee Satisfaction, Retention and Productivity – To counteract employee Negativity Bias, managers must remember that employees are more likely to give greater weight to criticism than to praise. Thus, it is important to offer a great deal of praise along with carefully selected, limited criticism during evaluations. Even so, employees are likely to gloss over words of praise on an evaluation and zero in on the negative, so in addition to there being more positive comments than negative, those positive comments need to be stronger and more memorable.
Also, while managers should recognize productive and constructive efforts and help staff discover and build on their strengths, it is even more important to eliminate negative experiences such as obstacles that impede employee growth and removing coworkers who are “bad apples”.
Case in point. Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” on National Public Radio, interviewed Will Felps, a professor at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, about the impact of “bad apples” in the workplace. In an experiment he conducted, Felps wanted to see what happens when a bad employee works as part of a team. In the experiment, people were divided into groups of four and each group was assigned a task. One member of the group, however, was an actor who pretended to be a reluctant slacker (refused to work), a depressive pessimist (doubted the team’s ability and was very sad) or a contemptibly insulting person (put people and ideas down without offering anything constructive). Within 45 minutes, in each scenario, the rest of the group started behaving like the bad apple. Each team was so impacted by each particular negative behavior that, even though teams can be incredibly powerful, they performed 30-40% worse than groups that did not have a “bad apple” participant. For managers to counteract the Negativity Bias influencing the rest of the staff, managers probably should eliminate bad apples. In other words, since each negative will carry more weight than the positives, shielding employees from negative experiences is more important for decreasing employee turnover and increasing retention.
d. Retargeting Strategic Planning – Rather than fixating on competitive threats, management should pursue available opportunities. If that sounds logical, consider that that is not what most managers do. According to Chip Heath and Dan Heath in The Power of Moments, an annual study conducted by Forrester research and advisory firm – the Customer Experience Index (CX Index) — asks 120,000 customers about their most recent experiences with a variety of companies including banks, hotels, auto makers, computer manufacturers, etc.  They ask customers to rate their emotions on a scale of 1-7, where 1 is bad, 4 is neutral and 7 is great. It is understood that there is room for improvement for any customer that gives a score of 1-6. So the leaders of those companies were then told the scores their customers gave and asked if they would prefer to focus their future strategic planning first on:
a. making customers who gave them a 1, 2 or 3 into a 4, 5 or 6
b. making customers who gave them a 4, 5 or 6 into a 7?
Leaders at companies such as Porche, Disney, Vanguard, Southwest Airlines, and Intuit all said they would prefer to first focus on turning the customers who gave them a 1, 2 and 3 into 4, 5 and 6. Those leaders then estimated that their companies spend 80% of their resources trying to improve the experience of those seriously unhappy customers first. This sounds logical. But in fact, Forrester financial models found that the financial value of a customer increases only when customers have a highly POSITIVE experience, not when a bad experience is corrected. That’s because it is hard to erase the Negativity Effect after the fact. It is not only much easier to make a somewhat satisfied customer (4, 5 or 6) into a raving fan (a 7) but it translates directly into more revenue. For instance, an airline customer who gives a 7 rating will spend about $2,200 on air travel the following year, but someone who gave a 4 rating only spends $800. In the shipping industry, the customer who ranks the customer experience a 7 spends $57 versus the $24 for the customer who ranks the company a 4. But the increase in spending is much lower when turning a 1 into a 4. Turning a very unhappy customer into a neutral customer has little ROI thanks to the Negativity Effect. So for companies, it is very important to elevate the positives first and then eliminate the negatives rather than try to make happy already dissatisfied customers. 
e. Customer Behavior – For the reasons discussed, it is imperative that companies deliver dependable, quality service and eliminate situations that are known to anger customers. Long lines. Long wait times on the phone. Poor return policies. Employees with bad attitudes. Failure to communicate status on orders. Failure to hit deadlines. Poor quality products. By removing friction points, it is possible for companies to avoid the Negativity Effect altogether and deliver positive experiences for every customer.
The final thought on negativity bias. It is meant to keep us safe from harm, but it can also keep us from opportunities, fulfillment and happiness. It is important to recognize the benefits of negativity bias and then determine when it is on point and when it is superfluous and limiting. And it is really important for companies to minimize negative experiences with customers and employees as those have a big effect and a long shelf life.
 February 29, 2016, Danny Penman, Ph.D. and Vidyamala Burch, Rewiring the Brian to Heal, Pain Pathways Magazine, https://www.painpathways.org/brains-negativity-bias/
 September 8, 2010, Robert I Sutton, Bad is Stronger than Good: Evidence-Based Advice for Bosses, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2010/09/bad-is-stronger-than-good-evid
 Rick Hanson, Confronting the Negativity Bias, https://www.rickhanson.net/how-your-brain-makes-you-easily-intimidated/
 December 19, 2008. Ira Glass, Ruining It for the Rest of Us, This American Life Podcast, National Public Radio, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/370/ruining-it-for-the-rest-of-us/prologue-0
 Chip Heath and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY 2017.
© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.