Will your negative bias let you?
This photo just came up in my photo memories. It’s my now 14yr old daughter when she was 7. I remember it so clearly. She appeared suddenly at the top of our stairs in a big crimson dress, that she’d found in my wardrobe.
“Mummy, mummy, can I wear this to bed? Can I, can I??”
My heart melted. She was so excited. Her face, her voice, her whole being were bursting with joy. It was contagious and I remember scooping her up in my arms and feeling her joy vibrate through my entire being.
And yes, she wore that dress to bed. Of course.
But not before I’d had a few, albeit brief, thoughts about whether she ‘should’. I needed the dress for something soon. Would it get ruined? Would she get tangled up in it in her sleep? If I said yes, what would she want to wear/do next? Where could this end?
When was the last time you felt the passion and excitement of a 7 yr old dress-up-loving girl who’s found the dress of her dreams? That rush of utter delight and unstoppable enthusiasm?
When the feelings arrived, did you allow yourself to feel them? To savour them? To run with them?
Or did your mind come crashing in with a load of ifs and buts and maybes. Talking you out of both the feeling and any spontaneous action you might’ve taken?
Welcome to our mind’s negative bias… We all have one. It means well and absolutely has our best interests at heart, but it can be SUCH a killjoy!
“Our minds are like Teflon for the positive and Velcro for the negative”
Our negative bias is an old survival mechanism in our brains. It’s an evolutionary leftover from the time we lived in caves and lived under daily threat for our lives. We had to constantly scan our environment for threats and danger, so that we didn’t get eaten or maimed.
So, our minds, naturally, prioritised the negative. Anything good wouldn’t kill us, so was irrelevant and our minds could let go of. And that’s how the negative bias came about.
The problem now is that we’re still biased, as our brains evolve at snail like pace, still imagining that we’re cave people. We respond to our modern day, non-life-threatening problems in exactly the same way: as if they might kill us.
We might know intellectually that our broken washing machine, delayed train, argument at home, won’t kill us, but our minds and nervous systems react as if they will. We go into fight-flight-freeze survival mode. Which is both stressful and, importantly, often dictates our actions.
A clear example of negative bias in our modern world, is when we receive lots of positive comments about a piece of work or situation and 1 negative. Which do we focus on? Logic would say, all the lovely positive ones, as they’re the majority. But no, we usually focus on the one negative, trying to fix or justify it and dismissing the positive comments in the process.
So how can we shift this? How do we utilise the sensible and well-meaning kill joy, whilst simultaneously preventing it from crushing our 7 yr old dress-loving (or equivalent) spirit?
As in most answers involving mindfulness, it’s through AWARENESS.
- Noticing when that negative bias has kicked in. What thoughts are you having? Are they proportionate to the situation? What sensations can you feel in your body?
- Knowing intellectually that this bias exists in all of us and is an old survival mechanism. It might not be valid.
- Questioning the negative. Am I reacting out of fear? Is the fear justified? Is it based in old patterns that are no longer relevant? Or is it a genuine concern that I need to take care of?
Stopping, taking a moment, becoming conscious of a situation and any negative bias we might be experiencing, is a great practice. It allows us to find our way to an appropriate response.
A response which is more attuned to our needs of the moment, rather than a knee-jerk reaction, born from an unconscious negative bias, and which is often based in caution and safety.
I’m not saying we should just throw caution to the wind on everything. Caution and safety can absolutely be the best guides sometimes. And we can take from both. Yes, my daughter wore my dress to bed many times. But she also had to (reluctantly) take my high heels off first… We just don’t want caution to be an unquestioned habit.
So, let’s check in with our well-meaning killjoys first, decide whether they need listening to, or whether the most appropriate response is to savour our excitement, allow our enthusiasm to run wild and wear all our frilliest and most extravagant dresses to bed.
With or without high heels…