Is the World Going to Hell in a Hand Basket? — the Negativity Bias

Brief con­tact with a cock­roach will usu­al­ly ren­der a deli­cious meal ined­i­ble. [But] the inverse phenome-non—rendering a pile of cock­roach­es on a plat­ter edi­ble by con­tact with one’s favorite food—is unheard of. 1

Why does our media con­stant­ly report on the neg­a­tive aspects of our soci­ety, with only a short snip­pet of pos­i­tive media? Why is it that peo­ple spout­ing polemic and invec­tives get so much more air­time, than those build­ing con­struc­tive argu­ments? Undoubtedly some of this is due to the preva­lence of polemics and the prob­lem of evil in the world, there is also a cog­ni­tive bias lurk­ing beneath the sur­face: the neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias. This bias describes our human pre­dis­po­si­tion to pay­ing more atten­tion to ele­ments that have an over­all neg­a­tive nature, to those that have a pos­i­tive nature to them.

The neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias, also known as the pos­i­tive-neg­a­tive asym­me­try effect, has been reg­u­lar­ly observed in a wide range of stud­ies, and is intrin­si­cal­ly felt by many peo­ple. For exam­ple the loss of a pet or more sig­nif­i­cant­ly a rel­a­tive will res­onate with many indi­vid­u­als for a sig­nif­i­cant peri­od. Or for a child at school being picked last on a sports team, or fail­ing a test, will have a high­er and longer last­ing cur­ren­cy than all the times that they were picked first or excelled. Psychologically the effects of neg­a­tive events stick with us longer than the pos­i­tive ones. 2 Furthermore, in a range of psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies, even when arti­fi­cial­ly con­trol­ling for fre­quen­cy and occur­rence the major­i­ty of peo­ple pay more atten­tion to neg­a­tive than pos­i­tive events, and are even inter­nal­ly moti­vat­ed to avoid neg­a­tive pro­jec­tion rather than empha­sise pos­i­tive projection.

'Typical media bias. First they label the wolf 'the big BAD wolf' then they only give Little Red Riding Hood's point of view.'So is this just the old adage of the world going to hell in a hand bas­ket? Are things just get­ting ever worse, and even­tu­al­ly the sit­u­a­tion will be com­plete­ly unten­able, with the world implod­ing in on itself in a sea of neg­a­tiv­i­ty? Well, not quite, or so the research says. Although it is obvi­ous that neg­a­tive events occur, and seem­ing­ly reg­u­lar­ly, the over­all tenor of the world is that these events are in decline. As Steven Pinker found in his research on vio­lence in The Better Angels of Our Nature we may actu­al­ly be liv­ing in the most peace­ful era ever. 3 While I’m usu­al­ly quite sus­pi­cious of Whig-type his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, it appears that the research in Pinkers book stacks up. Why then is it that we feel that the world is just get­ting worse? A sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of it is like­ly to do with our neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias.

With our inbuilt neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias push­ing us towards pay­ing more atten­tion to neg­a­tive events than pos­i­tive, is is under­stand­able that the vari­ety of media tends to report on neg­a­tive events. Especially those out­lets that are depen­dent on sales or clicks to pay the bills. In turn this feeds our neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias, and so the cycle is per­pet­u­at­ed. However, it is impor­tant to note that this is not a chick­en-and-the-egg ori­gins sce­nario. From the pletho­ra of stud­ies it is quite clear that the ori­gins for the cycle lie with­in our cog­ni­tive bias­es, and are then sub­se­quent­ly fed and reinforced.

half-full-half-emptyThe same effect occurs when peo­ple are asked to make deci­sions based on the evi­dence pro­vid­ed. Many will decide on a course of action, or a held belief, based on the neg­a­tive argu­ments put for­ward, rather than the pos­i­tive argu­ments. We humans tend to make deci­sions based on what we may lose, rather than what we can gain. 4

What does this have to do with acad­e­mia and the pub­lic square, oth­er than some­thing that is cool to know about. Well, one of the pri­ma­ry appli­ca­tions is to do with how posi­tions are argued. While prov­ing the null hypoth­e­sis prob­a­bly wont suf­fice for for­mal argu­ments, it cer­tain­ly suf­fices for the pub­lic square. What is more, because of the neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias, these neg­a­tive argu­ments tend to be tak­en on board more than the same argu­ment phrased pos­i­tive­ly. As an exam­ple I was recent­ly read­ing an arti­cle post­ed to that eru­dite news source: Facebook. Essentially the author of the arti­cle was argu­ing pos­i­tive­ly for the exis­tence of a town from archae­o­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal evi­dence, and quite aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly con­vinc­ing­ly too might I add. However, from the com­ments on Facebook it was evi­dent that the take home aspect of many read­ers was that the author was argu­ing neg­a­tive­ly, against the pro­posed the­sis that the archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence point­ed to the non-exis­tence of the town. Many read­ers com­plete­ly failed to acknowl­edge the pos­i­tive argu­ments, even when quizzed.

So what for us? Well in acad­e­mia and pub­lic dis­course there is a ten­den­cy to pro­vide sole­ly con­struc­tive argu­ments, as with­in the sci­en­tif­ic method it is dif­fi­cult to prove the null hypoth­e­sis (don’t get me start­ed on Bayesian the­o­ry and NHST again). However, for recep­tion of that dis­course we need to be aware that neg­a­tive­ly framed argu­ments tend to be car­ried with more weight. Sadly then neg­a­tive argu­ments must be engaged with, rather than mere­ly dis­missed. Of course the dif­fi­cul­ty is how to engage with them with­out mere­ly being neg­a­tive in response, and on that ques­tion I’m very sad to say it is high­ly contextual.

How do you deal with neg­a­tive argu­ments, and how are you aware of the neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias at play in your own work? Tell me below, in the comments.

About Chris


  1. Rozin, Paul, and Edward B. Royzman. ‘Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion’. Personality and Social Psychology Review 5/4 (2001): 296–320.
  2. Baumeister, Roy F.; Finkenauer, Catrin; Vohs, Kathleen D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology 5 (4): 323–370.
  3. Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. 1st Edition edi­tion. New York: Viking Adult, 2011.
  4. Rozin, Paul, and Edward B. Royzman. ‘Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion’. Personality and Social Psychology Review 5/4 (2001): 296–320.
    In a pos­si­ble con­fir­ma­tion of the FUTON bias: