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Negativity Bias

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

These last few weeks have served as a reminder as to why I started “This Way Out” in the first place. The world of social media can be an overwhelming and dark place. And sometimes, many times, actually, I’ve allowed for it to command my thoughts and emotions. Too many times recently, I’ve convinced myself, again, that the world is an ugly place, and that it’s falling apart.

But then I talk to my wife, or look at my kids. I get an email from an old friend updating me on the latest and greatest in his life, or I get a message from another person I care about, and we begin sharing memories of how much fun we had together. And then I remember, “No.” This world is actually an amazing place full of adventures and experiences, and likewise full of wonderful and caring individuals.

The problem, at least for me, is not the world, or how much evil exists in it. My problem is that I constantly allow myself to become overexposed to bad and/or ugly things. My problem is that I, almost instinctively, feel compelled to address and debate frivolous issues out of my control.

With this moment of clarity and awareness, and also knowing that I’m not the only person with a tendency to gravitate toward bad news, I became curious to know if there might be an explanation or reason behind that behavior.

And wouldn’t you know it, it’s actually something that’s covered in depth by our friends in the field of psychology.

It’s called “negativity bias.” And it has to do with that part of our brain that’s developed to perceive threats since back in our caveman days so we could defend ourselves against saber toothed tigers and such.

In one study done by psychologist John T. Cacioppo, he observed that when a person was presented with unfavorable images or information, the brain activity of that person was greater than when they were presented with favorable images and information.

Among other tests run in his study of negativity bias, he believes he was able to support the idea that our brains are reacting to negative information in media the same as it would a dangerous threat in the wild.

Because we are psychologically designed to protect ourselves and determine where threats exist, we, somewhat naturally, return to the news and social media sources because they’re always reporting where the “perceived threats” exist.

If you think about it, it doesn’t sound very fair, does it? Especially when you take into account the news media adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.

And once again, I’m reminded why I started “This Way Out.” Because it was a personal encounter with a reporter that provided just the inspiration I needed to set this whole thing in motion.

The story goes like this: a non-profit group I help with experienced some vandalism to its facility, and one of the local news stations came by to do a story on it. When all the interviews were concluded, I approached the reporter conducting the interviews and told him that if they were ever looking for a “feel good” story, they should come back on any given weekend, because our group services the disabled. The reply I got was, “that’s not what sells.”

And the seed was planted.

Because of that perspective, and the constant cycle of negativity the media supplies, this does nothing for making us better as individuals. But, as I learned, in that encounter and in the research I did in preparing to write this blog entry, the media will never let us down in providing us those warnings, cautions, and notes to be aware of. To be afraid of.

In fairness though, that’s their job.

My job. Our job. Is to only ingest what we need. To only go to the well as many times as is necessary to get the information we need. But, it’s also up to us to know when it’s time to walk away and take a break.

I’ll be the first to admit it, too. It’s tough not to concern myself with the latest and greatest “catchy” headlines and social media posts. But I think I understand much better now, that it's up to me to be aware of how much is too much, and then walk away.

In the end, while our attraction, or at least the anticipation, of negativity may be part of our survival natural programming, there are no more sabre toothed tigers out there.

Yes. Scary, dangerous, and not-so-nice situations exist in the world. And the news and social media will always be good at providing us with that information. But saturating our senses and engaging that information to the point of anxiety is a choice.

I forget that sometimes. And maybe you do, too.

But you know what else is inherent to us as people? Learning.

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