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
Researcher, Cacioppo gives this 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
- Shift the focus from weaknesses to strengths – Most teens can name their weaknesses, but how many can name their strengths? They are getting critical feedback on a daily, if not hourly basis. If we can help them name strengths, call out their good points, give them positive labels, then the negativity bias starts to loosen its grip. Go here to learn more about identifying strengths.
- Challenge negative self talk – We need to help students pay attention to the type of thoughts that run through their mind. Each person has a choice in what we dwell on and where we allow thoughts to spiral. Focusing on positive results, traits and outcomes will relieve fear and change the neural pathways toward a resilient mind.
- Tune out from media – Catastrophe and negativity sells. And it’s now on a global scale. But the among of media consumption can overwhelm a young brain who is trying to figure out what is safe, who they can trust, what the future holds and how they will cope. No one is suggesting to live under a rock, but monitoring the percentage of negative messages will go a long way in helping a teen gain hope and faith in a great future.
- Celebrate positive moments – One of the best ways to help a teen change their brain is to regularly encourage gratitude and positive reflection. What went right? What were the highlights? Who was encouraging? Where did you succeed?
- Balance our feedback – Educators need to be aware of the weight that our feedback has on young ones. We tend to understate areas of competence and effectiveness, pointing out the areas that require more effort and focus. We default to telling them where they are not going well. Afterall, if we simply complement them, how will they know what they need to improve? Sure, feedback is necessary but emphasising what’s right may just boost their performance in ways we haven’t seen before.