What Is Negativity Bias? | Definition & Examples

Negativity bias is the tendency to pay more attention to negative information than to positive information. Here, more weight is given to negative experiences over neutral or positive experiences. Due to negativity bias, we are much more influenced by negative events or information than by positive counterparts of equal significance.

Example: Negativity bias 
You are hiking with friends. While enjoying the scenery, you suddenly see a rattlesnake. The snake immediately slithers away. However, when asked about the hike later, you remember the snake incident more vividly than the beautiful scenery.

Negativity bias causes us to dwell on the negative, making bad experiences seem much more important than they really are. This, in turn, can impact our decision-making and the opinions we form about others.

What is negativity bias?

Negativity bias is a form of cognitive bias. It is an asymmetry that occurs when we process negative and positive information in an attempt to make sense of our environment. Specifically, we attend to, learn from, and use negative information more often than positive information.

Negativity bias manifests whenever we tend to:

  • focus on negative news or events
  • weigh negative information more heavily than positive information
  • be influenced by negative rather than positive emotions

Under negativity bias, we are inclined to internalise negative experiences more deeply, causing us to worry and dwell on small things. For example, we may obsess over a comment we made at a party and later regret or focus on the fact that someone cut in line in front of us. Even if the rest of our day was neutral or positive, these minor incidents can carry a disproportionately large weight and impact our mood.

In the context of decision-making, negativity bias makes us focus too much on negative traits. Due to this, people tend to be more motivated to vote against a candidate because of negative information. Overall, we tend to believe that negative information is more indicative of a person’s character than positive information.

What causes negativity bias?

Negativity bias is caused by an innate tendency to look for danger in our environment. This is a mechanism humans developed throughout our evolution. Thousands of years ago, our survival depended on being able to identify hazardous situations and threats, such as predators. To help us survive, the brain learned to seek out information that signaled danger.

Although our environment has changed, and we no longer have to run from predators, we are still wired for self-preservation. For this reason, something positive generally has less of an impact on our behavior and thoughts than something equally emotional but negative.

Negativity bias examples

Negativity bias causes us to place more emphasis on negative information. This can be used against us, influencing the quality of our decisions..

Example: Negativity bias in political campaigns
Negativity bias can help explain why political candidates often attempt to damage their opponent’s reputation. This form of negative campaigning is typically not geared towards exposing a difference in policy positions but rather is usually associated with insulting an opponent’s character or deriding them as a person.

The reason behind this behavior is that we are more swayed by negativity than an objective analysis of divergent policies. By spreading negative information, political campaigns take advantage of our tendency to attune ourselves to the negative.

Negativity bias can also significantly impact how employees perceive and react to feedback.

Example: Negativity bias in the workplace
You have just finished your performance review with your manager. During the meeting, your manager spent a lot of time highlighting your accomplishments and acknowledging your positive contributions to the team.

Towards the end, they also gave you some negative feedback: ‘When you’re giving presentations, please try to make better eye contact. I know it can be hard, but it really helps engage with the audience’.

Although your manager gave you more positive than negative feedback, you can’t help but focus on the one piece of negative feedback. By the end of the day, you feel that your review didn’t go well at all.

How to avoid negativity bias

Negativity bias is deeply ingrained in human nature. As such, overcoming it requires some practice. The following strategies can help you in that direction:

  1. Acknowledge your bias. Like with other types of bias, the first step is to become aware of negativity bias. Notice, for example, when you are having negative thoughts or engaging in negative self-talk.
  2. Shift your attention. Negativity bias occurs because we pay more attention to negative information and events. We can redirect our attention to what’s positive around us by intentionally looking for positive experiences, emotions, or information in daily life.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Studies suggest that mindfulness can reduce negativity bias and increase positive judgements. Meditation practices like mindful breathing can help us anchor our attention in the present moment and interrupt rumination or negative thoughts.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions

Why is negativity bias a problem?

Negativity bias is a problem because it causes us to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to anything negative happening, even when positive things happen as well. This not only impacts our mood but also our perception of situations and other people.

For example, we process and use negative information more than positive information in arriving at a final impression of a person, even when the positive and negative information are equally significant or meaningful.

What is the opposite of negativity bias?

The opposite of negativity bias is the positivity offset or positivity bias. This is a tendency that may lead people to:

  • view reality in a positive rather than negative way
  • hold positive expectations and memories
  • favor positive information in reasoning
What is an example of negativity bias in everyday life?

An example of negativity bias in everyday life is how we judge a person’s character. If someone whom we generally consider to be dishonest occasionally behaves in an honest way, this won’t change our negative opinion of that person.

However, if someone whom we generally view as honest commits a dishonest act, we will immediately change our evaluation for the worse. Due to negativity bias, we attach more weight to negative behaviors and these disproportionately influence our judgment.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, February 02). What Is Negativity Bias? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 11 June 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/bias-in-research/the-negativity-bias/

Sources

Kiken, L. G., & Shook, N. J. (2011). Looking Up. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(4), 425–431. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550610396585

Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological bulletin, 134(3), 383–403. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383 

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.