Why our brains focus on the negative – via the New York Times

Joe Joseph (let’s call him) walked out of an important meeting at the company he worked for, “Golden Handcuffs” (let’s call it), and immediately felt horrible. He had received a ton of criticism (not much of it constructive), and other assortments of negative information.

Over the course of the day, he had also been on the receiving end of some general compliments from his peers, an easy commute, and a thank-you note from a good friend.

But all he could focus on was the negative.

“This is a general tendency for everyone,” said Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University in a recent article in the NY Times…“Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”

Research tells us, bad feedback has much more of an impact than good feedback. In fact, “The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass… Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”

Joe Joseph is not alone. We as a culture and a society tend to focus on the negative for a variety of reasons, and now, some neurological research tell us this is normal.

But, normal does not mean healthy.

Can you soak up and stack up enough “positives” to out-weigh the negatives, and is it simply a matter of working hard (very hard) to modify your outlook enough to concentrate on the positives?

Evolutionary tales tell us those who were more attuned to negative events were better equipped for survival and threat deterrence. But, we want more than to just survive – we want to thrive.

Here are some practical tips to help focus on the positive:

  1. Spend your time around people who lift you up. View your brain as a bank – our goal is  increase positive deposits and decrease the number of  negative withdrawals.
  2. Don’t shun criticism but remember its place. Constructive criticism is important and un-avoidable – focus on action steps, and stick to facts instead of feelings.
  3. Take a cue from Professor Amabile, who writes of the power of small wins. Take note and strive for making progress on meaningful work and the steps forward you can take every day.
  4. The article gives the example of a “Kudos File”, or positive piggy bank. Work to remind yourself of the positives, steer your focus towards them, and in return, offer specific praise to friends and colleagues when you can.


1 thought on “Why our brains focus on the negative – via the New York Times

  1. Pingback: Embracing What’s Wrong to Get to What’s Right – via Tony Schwartz « Tools for Navigating Business Without a Script

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