Negativity Bias

Cognitive biases are defined by Narayanaswami (2011) as “situational instances of deviation in judgment”.  Negativity bias, one facet of cognitive bias, is defined by Wikipedia (n.d.) as “the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things”.  For instance, Narayanaswami (2011) notes that “By taking advantage of the Negativity Bias inherent human nature, wherein we pay more attention to negative images, the Nazis succeeded in associating Jews with … unpleasant mental images”.  The negativity bias in human nature has not gone unnoticed.  Rozin & Royzman (2001) point out that many well known humanists have brought attention to negativity bias over the years.  In fact, Tolstoy (1878) brought attention to negativity bias in the novel, Anna Karenina, with the opening statement: “All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is miserable in its own way” (Tolstoy, 1878).  The underlying suggestion being that success is only achieved in situations of which every possible deficiency has been avoided.  This negative orientation easily translates into many facets of life.  One of the most fascinating being the media.  Because media representation often uses human tendency towards negativity bias as a selling point, it may cause deviation in cognitive judgement.

A consistent orientation towards the negative is a common characteristic in human existence.  Evolutionary needs have been cited as being responsible for this phenomenon such that when faced with danger, one must think fast and make an inherently more important decision based on life or death.  It is for this reason that many researchers believe that negativity bias is in fact a very real facet of our being.  Ito, Larsen, Smith, & Cacioppo (1998) state:

“This fact about the world could be mirrored in the way the organism and brain process negative events. Negative events may inherently (or conceivably by acquisition) be more contagious, generalize more to neighboring domains, and be more resistant to elimination”.

Rozin et al (2001) point out that research conducted by Bridges in 1932 observed that infants exhibit “no clear positive expressions” prior to 3 months old.  In addition, Hamlin, Wynn, and Bloom (2010) suggest that infants exhibit a negativity bias stating that “negative social information is developmentally privileged in influencing social preferences”.  Negativity bias is a consistent phenomenon throughout childhood as well as adult life.  According to Rozin et al (2001), that which makes negative events more dominant is simply that “negativity entities are  more contagious than positive entities”.  They further point out that this is most potent in the case of contamination, whereas a negative substance quickly and completely contaminates its positive counterpart yet the opposite effect is unheard of (Rozin et al, 2001).  This is demonstrated well in the case of food contamination, racial contamination and religion.  An entire plate of food is easily ruined by contact with something as undesirable as a cockroach yet an undesirable plate cannot be remedied by contact with something desirable, racial prejudice is such that one drop of tainted blood is thought to contaminate the more desirable race yet a member of the less desirable race cannot be exonerated based on one drop of blood from the more desirable, and to become a Saint requires countless good deeds yet a fall from grace is achieved by only one disgraceful act (Rozin et al, 2001).

Negativity bias is apparent in most facets of life as demonstrated by Rozin et al (2001):

  • physiological arousal
  • sensation and perception
  • attention and salience
  • masking
  • identification and search
  • learning
  • taste aversions
  • phobias, and fetishes/passions
  • motivation
  • mood
  • memory
  • contagion (mentioned above)
  • asymmetric weighting and racial purity (mentioned above)
  • decision making; development (mentioned above)
  • impression formation
  • empathy
  • moral judgements

The body’s physiological arousal responses are even more aligned on the negative spectrum in that “negative stressors (changes) seem to have more of an effect on health than “equivalent” positive “stressors” (Rozin et al, 2001).  Arthur Schopenhauer (1844) noted of sensation and perception that:

“We feel pain, but not painlessness. … We feel the desire as we feel hunger and thirst; but as soon as it has been satisfied, it is like the mouthful of food which has been taken, and which ceases to exist for our feelings the moment it is swallowed”.

Because the positive state of well-being is essentially the default, we fail to appreciate its presence; therefore, relying on negative information to inform our state of being rather than the positive.  Both negative information and negative events command more attention and have a greater psychological impact (Rozin et al, 2001).  Interestingly, backward masking is quite effective when using negative words versus the positive alternative.  For instance, when attempting to backtrack and mask an apparently ill received statement or act, using negative words will better suit to hide the initial corrupt event versus a direct apology.  Trump’s use of backward tracking has been common throughout his campaign.  Furthermore, Rozin et al (2001) posits that humans are inherently more capable at identifying negative expressions versus positive ones and that learning from negative events is more efficient than learning from positive reinforcement albeit the more damaging longterm effects stemming from negative events.

As Rozin et al (2001) describes, humans are very adept at developing strong preferences to certain tastes and activities; although, the development of preferences takes considerably longer than the development of phobias or taste aversions.  Also intriguing is the finding that negative motivation is more potent; as is when pulling away from a negative event as opposed to working towards a positive event (Rozin et al, 2001).  Rozin et al, (2001) reported that Taylor (1991) found the best predictor of mood to be the expectation of a negative event rather than the expectation of a positive event (Rozin et al, 2001).  However, negative bias in memory has been found to be somewhat varied.  Rozin et al (2001) found that memory was largely affected primarily by a positive bias as in the case of Trump, in which many negative incidents during his campaign are thus easily forgotten whereas many of the more positive attributes tend to stand out (Wikipedia, 2016).  However,  Rozin et al (2001) also reported that Baumeister et al. (in press) found memory to be primarily colored by a negative bias in many instances as well.  For instance, Shakespeare (1620) reflects his feelings towards memory being negatively biased: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interr’d with their bones”.

Decision making is also primarily based on the negative effect versus the positive as Rozin et al (2001) points out, humans make decisions based on less loss versus more gain.  There is a greater aversion to loss than there is towards a motivation to gain, even when perceived value is equal.  Rozin et al (2001) state that, “It is in the domain of impressions of persons that negative bias has its longest and fullest history in psychology”.  This is an interesting concept considering impressions are such that, “A person who behaves highly intelligently on one occasion, and stupidly on three occasions, is still seen as intelligent” (Rozin et al, 2001).  This is due to the fact that “highly diagnostic characteristics will be more heavily weighted in impressions and that, generally, extreme and negative behaviors are more diagnostic” (Rozin et al, 2001).  Empathy being defined as a largely neutral term, is in fact only truly applicable to negative events (Rozin et al, 2001).  As humans it is common to show empathy towards another human in negative circumstances; however, we don’t show empathy towards others in response to positive events. In fact, as Rozin et al (2001) point out, there exists not a word in English or any other language which reciprocates the feeling of happiness for another human the same way that empathy does for negative events.  According to Rozin et al (2001) “the enormous negativity bias in judgments of character is striking”.  Morality is as easily taint-able as race, religion, or contagion; one disapproving misstep and the path of return is steep.

This is demonstrated well in Greek literature:

“Oh! I can feel it now: nought can soothe us midst our worldly cares, but the conscience! But if, through chance, it’s scarred, by but a single stain, … a single stain … then woe and misery! As from a deadly sore, the soul then burns, the heart is drenched in venom, and reprove, as if some pealing hammer, fills the ears. One’s sick all over, and the head is whirling, and bloody lads appear before the eyes … And one would flee, save one can find no shelter … agony! He is wretched most whose conscience is unclean” (Pushkin, 1825).

Negativity bias is highly documented in the American political arena.  Rozin et al (2001) point out that Bloom and Price (1975) demonstrated that negative short-term economic conditions were contaminating to the present presidential candidate whereas the positive opposite had no effect.  Well known quotes relating to news as noted by Soroka and McAdams (2015) indicate the orientation of news affiliates well:  “No news is good news” and “If it bleeds, it leads”.

The controversy ensued by Trump and his campaign assisted in his ability to command almost complete attention from mainstream media, trending topics, and social media (Wikipedia, 2016).  Wikipedia (2016) states that, “Trump benefited from free media more than any other candidate. From the beginning of his campaign through February 2016, Trump received almost $2 billion in free media attention, twice the amount that Hillary Clinton received”.  Soroka et al (2015) report Kernell (1977) as demonstrating that “unpopularity has a much greater effect on voting decisions than does popularity”.  Although there is a  steady increase in negative advertising in the United States due to the belief that negativity sells, there is much disagreement amongst researchers as to whether or not this is truly the case (Soroka et al, 2015).  As pointed out by Polotico on September 21, 2015, “blaming the press for the Trump surge neglects the salient fact that so much of the coverage of him has been darkly negative” (Wikipedia, 2016).  In response, Barry Bennett, who was a senior adviser in Trump’s presidential campaign, said that:

Well the demand is pretty high so it’s hard not to do them. And it’s free media. And we’ve literally gotten hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free media. No other candidate can talk when everybody is talking about you. So there’s some strategic benefit to it.

Soroka et al (2015) note that it is unclear whether this negative approach attracts, repels, or completely turns voters away from voting at all.  In fact many public figures, including Republican delegates, publicity stated that they would not vote for Clinton or Trump (Wikipedia, 2016).  There is certainty; however, that the negative information represented in these ads is more readily remembered than that of positive ads (Soroka et al, 2015).  Soroka et al (2015) found that participants in their research were apt to react more strongly to negative content versus positive.  It was also noted that political orientations were more likely to be driven by fear than by passion.  This strategy was exhibited in many of Trump’s positions such as that of immigration, terrorism, and  overseas trade agreements (Wikipedia, 2016).  For example,  it was noted by Wikipedia (2016) that Trump “tapped into a deep well of anxiety among Republicans and independents in New Hampshire, according to exit polling data” and that he has remained most popular amongst those who feared “illegal immigrants, incipient economic turmoil and the threat of a terrorist attack in the United States” (Wikipedia (2016). In fact, Trump commented  on his use of negativity bias in stating that his campaign had “learned a lot about ground games in a week” (Wikipedia, 2016).  In fact, “Subjects more sensitive to threatening images also tend to be more supportive of a range of conservative policies (including defense spending and capital punishment)” (Soroka et al, 2015).  The premise remains that a higher level of fear or disgust leads people to take on largely more conservative attitudes (Soroka et al, 2015).

Because media representation often uses human tendency towards negativity bias as a selling point, it may cause deviation in cognitive judgement.  Generalizing information gleaned from Rozin et al (2001) and Soroka et al (2015), it is interesting to consider the use of negativity bias and its role in the recent election. Certainly a negativity bias in regards to news, morality, attention and salience, mood, masking, decision making, memory, and impression formation all played a role in the 2017 election, in which we ultimately elected the most attention seeking candidate in the race: Trump.  Whether or not this is a good strategy to follow in electing leadership for our country has yet to be determined. Nevertheless, it is apparent that humans have developed a negativity bias in response to evolutionary adaptation and that as long as there is a need for a negativity bias to exist, it will persist.

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References:

Ito, T., Larsen, J., Smith, K., & Cacioppo, J. (1998). Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain: The Negativity Bias in Evaluative Categorizations. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c708/9e51c100ee664b5bad998fbc726a11085ff2.pdf

Narayanaswami, K. (2011). Analysis of Nazi Propaganda. Retrieved January 29, 2017, from http://blogs.harvard.edu/karthik/files/2011/04/HIST-1572-Analysis-of-Nazi-Propaganda-KNarayanaswami.pdf

Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. (2001). Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from http://www.wisebrain.org/media/Papers/NegativityBias.pdf

Soroka, S., & McAdams, S. (2015). News, Politics, and Negativity. Retrieved January 24, 2017, from http://www.snsoroka.com/files/2015SorokaMcAdams.pdf

Wikipedia., (2016). Donald Trump presidential campaign, 2016. Retrieved January 29, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Trump_presidential_campaign,_2016

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Negativity Bias. Retrieved January 29, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negativity_bias

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