OVERCOMING THE NEGATIVITY BIAS – how a teen’s brain is sabotaging their self-worth

Humans have an inbuilt “negativity bias” where our brains process and focus on negative stimuli much more than the positive. It means that we:

  • Recall and think about insults more than compliments;
  • Respond more – emotionally and physically – to adverse stimuli;
  • Dwell on unpleasant or traumatic events more than pleasant ones;
  • Focus our attention more quickly on negative rather than positive information

Cacioppo gives the example:

“You might be having a great day at work when a co-worker makes an offhand comment that you find irritating. You then find yourself stewing over his words for the rest of the day. When you get home from work and someone asks you how your day was, you reply that it was terrible—even though overall, it was quite good despite that one negative incident. It’s the same with complements. Someone can say 9 good things and just 1 slight”

For students, it sounds like this:

The teacher is marking your essay and give you 9 great complements. You really understood the question, responded to the central theme, gave great examples, used correct grammar! But the 1 negative comment is the one you stew on – your introduction needs a little work. WHAT!? Oh man. Such a bad essay. I hate this subject.

In adolescents, this can have a huge affect on their self esteem – focusing on their worst qualities, lowest results, areas of weakness – rather than their strengths. The tendency to overemphasise the negative changes the way teenagers view themselves and impacts the choices they make. Some will search for affirmation in the wrong areas, while others will experience heightened anxiety as they fear the worst. An unchallenged negativity bias can sabotage a young person’s identity and self worth.

5 ways to help teens overcome the negativity bias


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Dan Hardie

Dan Hardie

Dan is a counsellor and the founder of MyStrengths

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