Negativity bias refers to people’s tendency to be more attentive to negative rather than positive information. Negative information is more likely to be used in decision-making and affect our judgments in a wide array of situations.
Although one of the earliest mentions of this propensity was from Tversky and Kahneman (1981), it was Rozin and Royzman (2001) that coined the term. They write:
“The principle, which we call negativity bias, is that in most situations, negative events are more salient, potent, dominant in combinations, and generally efficacious than positive events” (p. 297).
Vaish et al. (2008) summarized a large body of psychological research, noting:
“…an asymmetry in the way that adults process and use positive versus negative information: adults are far more attentive to and much more influenced in most psychological domains by negative than by positive information” (p. 385).
Paying attention to negative information in the environment has survival value. Being aware of danger means a higher likelihood of responding quickly and appropriately and living another day. This means that after thousands of years of evolution, modern humans have been blessed with the negativity bias.
Negativity Bias Examples
- Performance Evaluation Dwelling: Her performance evaluation was 99% positive, even glowing in some parts, but Mildred immediately starts to dwell on one slightly underwhelming compliment.
- Selective Relationship Memory: Jessica reflects on her previous boyfriend and can only think of the horrible arguments they had, forgetting the years of happiness in between.
- Restaurant Critic: Jeremy is constantly criticizing the service in restaurants. Even when the food is delicious, he can always find something wrong.
- Automobile Critique: When Stephen drives a new car from a U.S. company, he can find a thousand flaws in the design and performance compared to German automobiles.
- Charismatic Leadership: Lillian is a very charismatic leader and her staff love her; mainly because she has learned to control her talent for finding mistakes in everyone’s work.
- Prom Memory: Mitchel still remembers that one moment at his high-school prom when his dancing was described as “interesting.”
- Academic Punctuation Concern: Jasmine has changed one sentence in her thesis countless times because she can’t decide if she should use a colon or semi-colon; she doesn’t want her advisor to criticize her paper.
- Dating Perfectionism: Sanjay has been single for 15 years. Every time he goes on a date, he sees nothing but flaws sitting across the table.
- Thorough Grading: Dr. McDaniels almost writes more comments in the margin of his students’ papers than they actually write in the body.
- Director’s Precision: Ron is a control-freak on the set. He will shoot a scene over and over again until it is exactly the way he wants.
- Novelist’s Perfectionism: Margaret has been working on her novel for almost 12 years. She wants to get it exactly right before submitting it to publishing companies.
- Report Card Focus: Joe brings home his report card that is mostly A’s. He got a B in Geography and his parents immediately focus on this subject.
- Engineer’s Cautious Design: Georgia is an excellent engineer because she has a keen eye for ways things could go wrong in her company’s designs.
- Negative Political Ads: The political ads in the lead-up to the election are getting gloomier and gloomier. Focus groups have demonstrated to the campaigns that viewers remember negative ads more than positive ads.
- Vacation Worries: Talon is on a beautiful trip to Bali. It’s calm, relaxing, and everything is so cheap. But she can’t seem to relax because her mind is focused on all the things that might go wrong.
- Gym Progress Overlook: Susan has lost 20 pounds over the last six months at the gym, but she’s preoccupied with the 5 pounds she gained back during a holiday week.
- Gift-Giving Anxiety: Derek spends hours choosing the perfect birthday gift for his friend, yet he can’t stop thinking about the one time years ago when his choice was met with a lukewarm response.
- Movie Critic Tendency: Even though Amelia enjoyed 90% of a movie, she leaves the theater speaking only about the one plot hole that didn’t make sense to her.
- Parent-Teacher Meeting Focus: During a parent-teacher conference, Mrs. Rodriguez praises a student for their overall good behavior, but the parents fixate on the single incident of their child talking during class.
- Travel Review Disproportion: While browsing vacation destinations, Tom spends most of his time reading the handful of negative reviews for a resort, overlooking hundreds of glowing recommendations.
1. In Politics
Political campaigns are tough and sometimes extremely unpleasant. It is well-known in the world of politics that if a candidate is trailing in the polls, there is one strategy that will work.
That strategy is to start criticizing the opponent in every way possible. It’s not just a matter of presenting a different side of an issue or outlining why their economic plan won’t work.
It’s a matter of slinging as much mud as a 30-second campaign spot on television will allow. There’s a term for this strategy; it’s called mud-slinging.
Politicians use this approach for one simple reason: voters are more swayed by negativity than an objective analysis of divergent policies.
Mud-slinging is not a recent invention in politics. Jordan (1965), writing in a political science journal, summarized the results from different studies:
“a positive attitude or positive affect does not have an effect on measured behavior oppositely equivalent to the effect of a negative attitude or negative affect” (p. 315).
2. In User Experience Testing
When tech gurus are designing an app’s interface or working on the user-friendliness of a new gadget, they are obsessed with the flaws.
That’s because they know that consumers will only notice the difficulties they have when trying out the product. Even if an app is so well-designed that its functionality reaches a near 98% success mark, consumers will only notice that 2%.
This can lead to the app being rejected or, worse yet, customers posting their complaints online. Once that starts to happen, momentum can take over and before you know it, the app is a complete failure.
This negativity bias is just one reason why companies field-test their products and services extensively before plunging into a full marketing campaign.
3. In Depression
They may be so critical of their work that they find it nearly impossible to complete a report, or even get started on it. All they can do is ruminate about how bad it will be and imagine their supervisor’s disappointment.
They may completely avoid social situations because they fear saying something awkward or being rejected by others.
Depression can involve a level of negativity bias and self-criticism that is debilitating.
This is why many cognitive-behavioral therapies try to help patients learn to focus on the positive elements of situations, called reframing.
4. In Leadership
Maybe one of the best examples of a leader that had tremendous success due to their negativity bias is Steve Jobs. He was well-known as being exceptionally demanding with an attention to detail that was off the charts.
As we all know, that worked very well for him. Companies under his leadership thrived and climbed to be the top performers in their respective industries. The products produced were of the highest caliber and became top sellers almost instantly because consumers knew they would be flawless.
While an intense negativity bias worked wonders for Steve Jobs, it’s not a leadership attribute that will work for many others. In fact, modern leadership theory is more about developing a servant leadership style that is all about encouraging your team and creating a positive work environment.
5. In NFL Coaching
The NFL stands for “not for long” if you are nothing short of perfect. The level of play on the field is at the highest possible. Each and every play has to be run to the precision of a Formula 1 engine. Otherwise, the opponent will capitalize on any mistake and score.
This is why teams practice as much as possible. Practices and games are recorded and then coaches and players spend hours watching film.
They analyze each and every player’s moves down to the millisecond and try to identify even the slightest mistake. That error will then be worked on until it is fully corrected; if not, then it’s time for the next guy to step-up.
Coaching in the NFL is an example of how the negativity bias can lead to great success. There aren’t a lot of successful coaches with a positivity bias.
Overcoming Negativity Bias
Many marketers and therapists spend a lot of time trying to help people overcome negativity bias. For example, cognitive behavioral theory is all about helping people to readjust their thinking and expectations to more effectively reflect reality.
Furthermore, markers use concepts like the framing effect to overcome negativity bias. With framing bias, we can see that people’s opinions of things are affected by how they are explained. A $599 television that’s full price will feel more expensive than a $599 television that’s sold as 50% off (even if it’s always 50% off!).
Similarly, you can use anchoring bias to change perspectives. With anchoring bias, you can provide a negative first impression then layer-on positive outcomes to emphasize growth and progress. For example, a teacher can say “You got a B – that’s great. You improved from your C+ last term!”
Evolution has bestowed upon the human species a propensity to focus on the negative. It’s both a curse and a blessing.
In many situations the negativity bias is detrimental. It can make excellent employees dwell on their mistakes and cause anxiety when it’s really not necessary.
It can lead to depression so severe that people need professional help. The treatment teaches them to see the positive side of things; a complete reversal of the negativity bias.
However, in other situations, the negativity bias can be beneficial. Great coaches and players that strive for perfection are helped by the ability to see what is wrong with their performance.
The negativity bias is a double-edged sword if there ever was one.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.
Jordan, N. (1965). The asymmetry of liking and disliking. A phenomenon meriting further reflection and research. Public Opinion Quarterly, 29, 315–322
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1984). Choices, values, and frames. American Psychologist, 39, 341–350.
Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 296–320.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211(4481), 453-458.
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.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]