Negativity bias is a concept noted by psychologists Roy F. Baumister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer. Their findings on this observed tendency in human behavior are published in 2001 in the Review of General Psychology in an article titled Bad is Stronger than Good. Essentially, these theorists make a strong case that negative experience, or fear of bad events has a far greater impact on people than do neutral experiences or even positive experiences. Humans are thus biased toward behaving in a manner that will avoid negative experiences, and are much more likely to recall and be influenced by negative experiences of the past.
The concepts advanced by negativity bias theory are not exactly new. Earlier research in this area includes the development of prospect theory, which evaluates the ways people make choices when there is known risk. Theory on negativity bias and in prospect theory tend to agree that people are much more likely to choose things based on their need to avoid negative experiences, rather than on their desire to get positive things.
If you think about your life, you might note some ways in which you exhibit negativity bias. For instance, try to remember a compliment you received in junior high and then try to remember an insult. Many people will much more easily remember the insults than they will the compliments, though this can vary. Negative occurrences tend to resonate and be more memorable than positive or neutral occurrences. Bad truly seems stronger than good.
The theories of negativity bias tend to explain why negative and smear campaigning, and the politics of fear, uncertainty and doubt are so effective in elections. People may vote based not so much on their admiration of a particular candidate, but for the candidate who seems to have the least chance of bringing negative or bad things into their lives. A campaign that exploits negativity bias paints the opposite candidate as someone to be feared, and often makes false claims that leadership by another candidate would result in numerous bad things: more taxes, less security and the like.
Parents should also understand negativity bias because it can influence and shape parenting. Every day parents may provide children with many positive and neutral experiences. However, the day mom or dad loses it and screams at the kids is the day that kids, even as adults, will probably remember. Knowing that a negative act toward a child is likely to become much more prominent in a child’s memory may help us to remember how important it is to try to keep our tempers. It also turns out that for positive experiences to resonate, they have to occur with much greater frequency.
TV show host Dr. Phil reflects this brilliantly in his statement that it may take 100-1000 “atta boys” to a child in order to deflect the one negative or shame based statement to a child. While this may be a slight exaggeration, there is some evidence in negativity bias that Dr. Phil is on the right track. In studies of negativity bias and relationships, in order to maintain a healthy or even neutral relationship, a couple (from a statistical standpoint) must be able to list about five positive things about each other for each negative. Fewer positive things may mean the relationship is viewed in a negative light, and might predict poor relationship outcome.