Animation by Olenka Malarecka
Animation by Olenka Malarecka

Work Culture

Don’t fear the lion: How to overcome negativity bias

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Published on January 27, 2020

Animation by Olenka Malarecka

In 1975, Steven Sasson, an electrical engineer at Kodak, burst into his boss’s office, clutching a bulky metal contraption.

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Sasson excitedly explained that he had successfully used a “charged coupled device” to digitally capture an image and record it onto tape. In layman’s terms, he had just invented the world’s first digital camera.

Sasson’s invention lit the touch paper for a worldwide digital photography revolution—but Kodak never profited from it.

During the 1970s, Kodak was the name in film photography, commanding some 90% of the market and selling more than 1 billion rolls of film per year. So when Sasson presented his invention—a camera that didn’t need film—the reception from his bosses was decidedly lukewarm. “[I]t was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it,’” Sasson told The New York Times in 2008.

But Kodak’s devotion to film wouldn’t stop the digital revolution. “When we built [the first modern digital SLR], the argument was over,” Sasson told the Times in 2015. “It was just a matter of time, and yet Kodak didn’t really embrace any of it.”

Year by year, digital photography grew and the film market shrank. By the time Kodak’s executives came around to the technology, they were too late. Kodak’s competitors had pulled too far ahead and it simply couldn’t catch up. In 2012, after two decades of turmoil, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Kodak’s decline is interesting because it wasn’t out-invented or out-innovated by its competitors. Kodak’s collapse was driven by its executives’ fixation on what they stood to lose.

It’s easy to read Kodak’s story as an example of a psychological phenomenon called negativity bias. This bias says that we vastly overvalue negative stimuli, while ignoring positive ones. Kodak, to its peril, overvalued the risk to its film business and ignored the burgeoning digital market.

Kodak was not the first business to be brought down by negativity bias, nor will it be the last. Because, although we have known about this mental quirk for some time, it is still hampering our decision making, disrupting our workplaces, and undermining our productivity. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Velcro for negative experiences

The human brain is an astonishingly old and complex instrument, constructed piece by piece over hundreds of millions of years. And for most of that time, our ancestors have been occupied with one singular decision: do I chase the carrot or avoid the stick?

Picture yourself as a hominid a million years ago in the African savannah. As hunger rumbles in your belly, you decide you hunt for food in the surrounding area, picking berries off bushes and low-hanging fruit from trees. That’s the carrot.

As neuropsychologist Rich Hanson explained: “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

But as you walk between the lush green foliage, you spot what looks like a lion’s tail, swishing from side to side, behind a thicket of grass. That’s the stick.

Although the carrot and the stick are both necessary for your continued survival, one is clearly more important than the other. If you miss out on some berries, you’ll be hungry the next day. But if you miss the telltale signs of a hunting lion, it’s game over.

With eternal death as a consequence, our brains have evolved to react more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones. As neuropsychologist Rich Hanson explained: “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

Don’t fear the lion

Our bias towards negative stimuli made sense on the Paleolithic African savannah where prides of lions, packs of hyenas, and leaps of leopards all prowled. But today, humans effectively segregate themselves from natural predators. In modern day Johannesburg in South Africa, the swishing tail belongs to a friendly house cat, rather than a hungry hunter.

While you are much less likely to encounter a lion today than you were 50,000 years ago, your brain’s natural tendencies haven’t changed much, and your negativity bias is still whirring. And because it leaps into action for any negative stimuli—regardless of whether it’s an offhand comment from a coworker or the big bushy tail of a hungry predator—it can wreak havoc with your mind.

In 2015, researchers Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan partnered with Arianna Huffington to examine the effects of negative stimuli on mood. In their study, they split participants into two groups, one of which watched three minutes of negative news stories in the morning and the other three minutes of solutions-focused news stories.

They discovered that just three minutes of negative stimuli can color the next 1,437 minutes. “Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition,” wrote the authors in Harvard Business Review.

Kahneman and Tversky discovered that people feared losing money far more than they desired winning it.

But it’s not just your mood you should watch out for. Nobel Prize-winning researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated that the negativity bias disrupts our decision-making, too. When presented with an equally probable event—either winning or losing money on the flip of a coin—Kahneman and Tversky discovered that people feared losing money far more than they desired winning it. As such, they would stop agreeing to wagers when the stakes got too high—even though the probability was the same.

Debiasing survival kit

Our brains are not some impenetrable black box and our thought processes are not carved in stone. So once we understand what negativity bias is and how it’s affecting our thought processes, we can begin implementing ways to mitigate it.

Below, we’ll look at several effective debiasing techniques for negativity bias.

Self-awareness

Negativity bias doesn’t make logical sense. When we hear one negative comment in a sea of positive ones, it shouldn’t derail our day, even though it does. So the first step to debiasing our minds is to be mindful of our thought processes.

When you start recognizing the patterns and signs of negativity bias, you can begin challenging your thought process. “Be poised to gently recognize what is happening when negative patterns start to get activated and practice doing something each and every time—even something very small—to break the pattern,” says Grant Brenner, adjunct assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center.

If you are prone to overanalyzing parts of a conversation, Brenner suggested picking something simple to distract you—reading, cleaning, going for a run, and so on—and doing it every time your brain starts searching for a lion. By pulling your focus away from your negative experiences, you limit their importance and give your positive stimuli a fighting chance.

Reframe your language

During his time as president of Pixar Animation Studios, Ed Catmull struggled to manage the effects of negativity bias within his workforce. He noticed that his employees were increasingly reluctant to share their honest opinions for fear of hurting their colleagues’ feelings. But this stymied communication. “The only way to get a grip on the facts, issues, and nuances we need to solve problems and collaborate effectively is by communicating fully and openly, by not withholding or misleading,” Catmull wrote in his book Creativity, Inc.

To encourage open criticism and mitigate the effects of negativity bias, Catmull instead implemented a new idea—candor. “Candor is forthrightness or frankness—not so different from honesty, really,” he wrote. But Catmull didn’t deploy candor carelessly. Through a leadership group, he insisted candor be delivered on the films people work on and not the people working on them. 

Consider Pixar’s popular 2012 film, Brave. Imagine the film’s director didn’t feel a particular part of the score was working. She could have gone to the composer and said, “Your score isn’t working.” But doing so would have focused her feedback on the person not the project. Instead, with Catmull’s concept of candor, she would have said, “This five-minute section of music isn’t working.”

By reframing the language at Pixar, Catmull was able to achieve the honesty he needed without burying his employees under an avalanche of negative stimuli.

Rebalance the scales

With negativity bias, everything comes down to rebalancing the scales, says Dr. Acacia Parks, chief scientist at the science-based wellness app, Happify. Although debiasing techniques may loosen our grip, we will always cling to negative experiences more strongly than positive ones. So to produce a healthy work environment, we must increase our positive stimuli and decrease our negative stimuli.

Because we value negative experiences so highly, it’s difficult to outweigh the negative with positive. To rebalance the scales, we must also remove negative stimuli.

To create new positive experiences, Parks recommends we look at what we’re already doing. “I could savor my walk to work that I do every day, but maybe I'm not paying attention because I'm on my phone,” Parks says. If she switched her phone to silent and actively enjoyed the peaceful walk, that’s another positive experience without actually doing anything new. This is called savoring and it helps us increase the weight of positive experiences.

Another option is to create brand new positive stimuli. Perhaps Parks could arrange lunch with her co-workers or call an old friend for a chat. “It's creating new positive experiences so that you have a greater likelihood that the positive situations will outweigh the negative situations,” she says.

But stacking the positive side of the scales will only do so much. Because we value negative experiences so highly, it’s difficult to outweigh the negative with positive. To rebalance the scales, we must also remove negative stimuli.

To see how this works, imagine you work in an office. One morning, your line manager comes over and drops a report onto your desk. “This was rubbish,” he says. “Get me a new version by lunch.”

Intuitively, that feels like a negative experience—but it doesn’t have to be. “When things happen, we decide whether to classify them as good things, bad things, or neutral things,” Parks says. In this case, your line manager might be lashing out, not because the report was bad but because they’ve had a bad day. 

For any stimuli, there are dozens of different explanations and we rarely pick the most realistic or probable. Instead, we gravitate towards the negative explanation because that’s what we’re driven to. Before responding, Parks says we should pause and think about why something happened. By considering alternative explanations for events, we decrease the likelihood of drifting thoughtlessly towards the negative justification.

What might have been

With the benefit of nearly 50 years of hindsight, it’s easy to see Kodak’s mistake. Film was a doomed medium and digital would come to rule both the personal and commercial photography worlds. By ignoring digital photography, Kodak’s executives hamstrung the company—so much so that it would never recover.

Now consider the alternative. If Kodak’s executives had ignored their worries, looked past film, and doubled down on Sasson’s new invention, the brand may well have retained its position as the photography brand.

The same is potentially true for all of us. If we allow the negative stimuli we experience to define us, we consign ourselves to a life in which we make ostensibly safe decisions that may well undermine progress and innovation. But if we recognize the telltale signs of a cognitive bias at work and overhaul our thinking, we can do great work and fulfill our potential.