Have you recently had negative experiences with students or colleagues? Noticed feeling frustrated around unmet expectations-large or small? Rehearsed any conversations in your head so you can assess them at will when a similar situation arises in the future?
If yes, then you likely know negative and frustrating experiences are common in higher ed. But nothing is especially negative or unique about higher ed, negative and frustrating experiences are common human experiences. Effortlessly the human brain gravitates to the negative and can quickly generate frustration.
We’re hardwired with a negativity bias! From an evolutionary perspective overestimating a threat was far wiser than underestimating an opportunity. New opportunities reemerged and our ancestors likely didn’t experience eminent death from missing out on a potential meal or mating opportunity. Those who underestimated a threat, however, might not have survived to make that mistake again nor passed along their genes for blithely expecting the best.
Among other things, the negativity bias explains why the few negative comments in your peer reviews or student course evaluations stick with you longer. These create more intense and longer lasting negative feelings than the far greater number of positive assessments and comments, which also create less intense positive feelings.
Rick Hansen, a psychologist who studies this, memorably observes, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” Read more from Hansen to explore the science behind the negativity bias.
You’re not doomed!
You likely know some very positive people. You may be one of them or even aspire to increase your positive experiences. Good news! Much of how you respond to this effortless, almost automatic, negativity bias, is in your control! Yay! After all bias is an inclination not an absolute.
To counteract this innate negativity bias you can cultivate a number of practices.
1. Notice it-Name it:
Develop the skill of noticing when automatic negative feelings and thoughts hit. In our crazy, information saturated, 24/7, constantly-connected culture, pausing to notice will take effort. Reacting is automatic, noticing isn’t. Noticing requires intention. Make the effort. Soon this skill of noticing will reward you again and again.
Simply notice and then name it! Link your noticing to the equally simple reminder that negativity bias is part of your evolutionary history-part of what makes you human. Noticing and naming engages your conscious awareness. That can be just enough to pull you out of the automatic response. Once you notice the negativity bias at work and name it, you are in charge. You can put the thoughts in some perspective and put them in a much bigger context of information about you.
2. Counteract the Bias: Savor!
Develop the practice of savoring positive experiences. Yes, small ones count–the most! For example, when you receive an email thanking you, why not read it two or three times. Pause and articulate what you appreciate about yourself that has elicited this thank you.
Even better-reflect on the qualities that this person has noticed in you. Give yourself credit. Search your memory for more evidence of this quality. Savor, process, and link this experience with other experiences. You’re creating neural pathways to valuable evidence that can tip the balance in a positive direction. Savoring counteracts the negativity bias!
3. Collect Evidence
Create a place (electronic and paper) to collect positive notes-both ones from others and ones you create. Periodically read them. Maybe even turn to this growing collection when the negativity bias has distorted your perspective.
4. Practice Gratitude
Whether formally or informally, benefit from the mounting research evidence demonstrating that practicing gratitude enhances your happiness and shifts your perspective. Common practices are to list 2-3 things at the beginning and end of the day that you are grateful for. The practice of writing these daily and reviewing them could both refocus your current mood and create a storehouse of reminders for later review.
5. Weekly Celebrations
Develop the practice of a weekly celebration. Include in that celebration all your small wins for the week. To help you generate that list, jot down your daily wins as part of your end-of-the-day ritual. Remember these wins don’t need to be major or award winning. After all it’s the consistency of small wins that create the big ones.