Are Humans Wired to Be Negative?

Aeon

I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first? If it’s bad news, you’re in good company – that’s what most people pick. But why?

Negative events affect us more than positive ones. We remember them more vividly and they play a larger role in shaping our lives. Farewells, accidents, bad parenting, financial losses and even a random snide comment take up most of our psychic space, leaving little room for compliments or pleasant experiences to help us along life’s challenging path. The staggering human ability to adapt ensures that joy over a salary hike will abate within months, leaving only a benchmark for future raises. We feel pain, but not the absence of it.

Hundreds of scientific studies from around the world confirm our negativity bias: while a good day has no lasting effect on the following day, a bad day carries over. We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data, and they affect us longer. Socially, we invest more in avoiding a bad reputation than in building a good one. Emotionally, we go to greater lengths to avoid a bad mood than to experience a good one. Pessimists tend to assess their health more accurately than optimists. In our era of political correctness, negative remarks stand out and seem more authentic. People – even babies as young as six months old – are quick to spot an angry face in a crowd, but slower to pick out a happy one; in fact, no matter how many smiles we see in that crowd, we will always spot the angry face first.

The machinery by which we recognise facial emotion, located in a brain region called the amygdala, reflects our nature as a whole: two-thirds of neurons in the amygdala are geared toward bad news, immediately responding and storing it in our long-term memory, points out neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley. This is what causes the ‘fight or flight’ reflex – a survival instinct based on our ability to use memory to quickly assess threats. Good news, by comparison, takes 12 whole seconds to travel from temporary to long-term memory. Our ancient ancestors were better off jumping away from every stick that looked like a snake than carefully examining it before deciding what to do.

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