Cognitive Bias: Negativity Bias

Part 2 in our “Cognitive Bias and Leadership” Series

On our January 16, 2013 blog, I gave an overview of cognitive bias (our tendency to filter information through our own past experiences, likes, and dislikes) and surmised that it can lead to judgments that are faulty.  So much of positive leadership is about good decision making so we really wanted to expand on different biases. In the second of our series, I am going to talk about Negativity Bias – the tendency to give more weight to negative information than positive information. When I think about the Negativity Bias, I immediately think of the amygdala, which is an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain (specifically, if you happen to be curious, in medial temporal lobe).

The amygdala triggers your emotions faster than your conscious awareness and played a very important role in our past.  Think caveman and a T-Rex  – the amygdala quickly interprets the hints of danger (about 20 milliseconds) and activates the caveman’s sympathetic nervous system….Zog runs and lives another day.  If Zog had waited to become aware (about 300 milliseconds), he would’ve been lunch.

According Rich Hanson, a neuropsychologist, “humans evolved to be fearful — since that helped keep our ancestors alive.” The difference between then and now is that the likelihood of being eaten alive is pretty darn small today in modern times.  So while it helped our ancestors live, for us, it can be a nuisance when we find ourselves overreacting or favoring negative information over positive.  And we really do favor the negative.  We know that negative stimuli produce more neural activity than positive stimuli.   And to add insult to injury, negative information is more quickly stored into long term memory than positive information.

And the result?  We all have negativity bias.  As a species, we give greater weight to negative experiences and information than positive.  (No wonder the old broadcast news adage, “If it bleeds, it leads” has been so popular.)

So, what does this mean in your organization?

  • -It means threats are overestimated.  Ever wonder how that untrue rumor of layoffs spread like wildfire in such a short span of time?
  • -It means that your whole team, you included, are more inclined to notice mistakes than achievements.
  • -It means a bruised (read: scared) ego can run “amuck” when it’s simply not warranted.
  • -It means teams can underestimate an opportunity and you can be missing the boat on the next potential target market or product/service.
  • -It also means teams can see a resource as scarce causing a more political environment and absence of risk taking.


So what can you do?

  • -For starters, be aware of the Negativity Bias. And make your teams aware.
  • -Understand that it takes about four pieces of positive information to each negative piece for teams to be happy  – which, by the way, has been proven to lead to productivity.   So share positive information. Bring it to the surface.
  • -Dispute negative thinking with the facts.  Ask questions that surface the facts.
  • -Don’t ruminate and don’t let your teams ruminate.  Move on rather than going over the same negative information again and again.


I hope this was interesting and I welcome any comments.  In Part 3 in our “Cognitive Bias and Leadership” Series, I will be exploring Confirmation Bias, which is the tendency to search for or interpret information that confirms what we already think or prefer.

Be sure to stay tuned as we expand on each of the cognitive biases above in this blog series.

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