Negativity Bias

The Spiritual Problem You Didn't Know You Had

Imagine this: your child comes home from school with a mostly great report card—an A in five classes and only one C. Which grade do you focus on?

Or you’re reading reviews of a product and notice among 70 great reviews about 10 very negative ones. Which do you consider more credible?glass-half-full

Or how about this? You put your heart into some project or performance and receive dozens of compliments—and two mild critiques. Which do you spend more time thinking about?

If you’re like most people, you focus on negatives, even if they are far outnumbered by positives. And if you don’t, you’ve overcome a near-universal human condition: “negativity bias.” The human brain is wired to notice what's wrong.

That can be helpful at times in a world full of threats and dangers, but it comes with a huge downside. Think about how negativity bias can play out in our lives:

• After losing someone close to us, regrets generally come to mind more naturally than good memories do.

• It’s easier to believe criticism or gossip about someone than it is to believe a good report.

• Traumas stick out in our memories more prominently than victories do.

• We tend to be more suspicious than trusting of a generous person we don’t know.

• We worry about what might go wrong much more often than anticipate what might go right.

There are exceptions to these statements, of course, but they very often describe our natural tendencies if we aren’t intentional about defying them.

Yes, It's Real

Negativity bias can be explained in psychological and neurological terms—a Google search yields tons of information about it—but it has profoundly spiritual implications. Think about its impact on these spiritual attributes:

Gratitude: If you focus on what’s wrong, how are you going to be thankful for what has gone right?

Faith: How can you be confident in God’s promises if your thoughts gravitate toward possible exceptions to them?

Hope: How can you expect a good outcome if you’re worried about a bad one?

Love: How is it possible to love people well if their faults seem bigger than their value as human beings?

This is why the Bible tells us to give thanks in everything, to rejoice always, to love even our enemies, and to hang on to the hope that does not disappoint. God knows the negativity bias embedded in fallen human nature. And he gives us the tools to overcome it.

The problem is that we’re suspicious of the tools—because of our negativity bias, of course. But faith overcomes suspicion, and persistent, inspired choices to believe what God says can actually retrain our nature. And over time, we can become something radically good, true, and beautiful: people who are relentlessly positive.

Click to tweet: If you focus on what’s wrong, how are you going to be thankful for what has gone right?

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©2013-present by chris tiegreen