Ask Dr. Rick About:

Negativity Bias

Is there an explanation for the negativity bias in regard to learned helplessness?

You are speaking here of our vulnerability, shared with other mammals such as dogs, to acquire what is called “learned helplessness.” There is much research, pioneered by Martin Seligman, on this topic that has established the fact of this phenomenon. You ask a very interesting question: Why do we and other animals have this vulnerability – including to the sense of hopelessness, futility, and defeat? It could just be an inadvertent side effect of evolution. On the other hand, I can imagine ways that the acquisition of helplessness after a single painful experience of it could in fact help keep our animal and hominid/human ancestors alive in the wild by discouraging them from venturing out and exposing themselves to predators or aggression from others in their band.

Where do my negative or defensive reactions come from?

There is a common but mistaken idea these days: there is no particular neural “center” or “region” of emotional reactivity, including the brainstem. And reactivity is not restricted to the safety needs that are also managed by the whole brain, though the primal roots of safety management (including literally keeping the heart beating) are grounded in the brainstem.

You’ll see this conflation of emotional reactivity with the “reptilian brain” slash safety issues a lot in the culture and it’s just wrong . . . and weirdly prejudicial toward our little inner lizards! TONS of reactivity involve satisfaction/reward-seeking systems in the subcortex and connecting/attaching systems in the neocortex.

There’s also in the culture a simplistic conflation of neocortex/cognition/cool/thinking slow/reasonable/good, along with a related conflation of subcortex/emotion/hot/thinking fast/reactive/bad. Yes the neocortex enables conceptualizing and complex formal reasoning . . . . but it is full of crazy ideas and perspectives that makes us suffer and harm. Yes the subcortex enables the experience and effects of emotion . . . . but it also is the primary source of a background feeling of basic bodily well-being in the wallpaper of the mind.

In addition to the value of accuracy in its own right, another reason I try to flag these matters is because the frequent framing of the more ancient, nonverbal, and emotional aspects of the brain that we see in the culture sends us down a slippery slope toward the old views that emotion (and, um, women) is primitive and problematic while reason (and, um, men) is modern and civilized.

Can you explain what you mean by “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones?``

As the brain evolved, it was critically important to learn from negative experiences – if one survived them! “Once burned, twice shy.” So the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. On the other hand, positive experiences – unless they are very novel or intense – have standard issue memory systems, and these require that something be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.

Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time. Thus my metaphor of Velcro and Teflon – an example of what scientists call the “negativity bias” of the brain.

The effects include: a growing sensitivity to stress, upset, and other negative experiences; a tendency toward pessimism, regret, and resentment; and a long shadows cast by old pain.

I question your paradigm of the reptilian, mammalian, and primate brain in terms of the development of our emotions. I’ve read other theories that dispute this.

I’m familiar with the work of other brain-research scholars, such as Lisa Feldman Barrett, Daniel Kahneman, Jaak Panksepp, and Steve Porges. With respect, I think that the careful and nuanced way I write about the development of our brains is in fact scientifically accurate. (Much as the work of other scholars is scientifically accurate; different scholars emphasize different facts, and then sometimes rather different interpretations.)

In broad outline, the brain is indeed structured in three major layers that emerged during the reptilian, mammalian, and primate/human stages of evolution, with a high degree of similarity between the genetic instructions for and operation of each layer in us today and that layer in our mammal or reptile cousins. And today the whole brain works together for our functioning, with each part of it making its contributions.

With mental training, we can draw on the capabilities of more evolutionarily recent regions to manage older ones, but those older regions within us do have the qualities I attribute to them – and even with mental training we can see their rigidity, impulsivity, and vulnerabilities in everyday life.

How do I mesh the two tendencies of the brain: to be alert and tense, and its default setting of calm and contentment?

Basically, I think the evidence is that both are true: there is an ongoing trickle of background anxiety to keep us vigilant, and there is also a strong inclination to default to the “responsive mode” of being peaceful, happy, and loving when we are not disturbed. Putting these two apparent facts together, I think the trickle of anxiety prompts us to scan for threat, but if we find that all is well for now, then we default to the responsive mode, and then this cycle repeats itself a moment later.

For me the pragmatic point is to discern real threats and address them, while also recognizing the strong bias from evolution to look for threats behind every bush and thus appreciating the importance of exerting compensatory influences in a variety of ways, from inner practices such as I focus on to social support and (hopefully) decent health insurance.

What is one practice we can adopt in our everyday lives to overcome our negativity bias?

Several times a day, take in the good by really savoring a positive experience for 10-20 seconds or more. (The second chapter of Just One Thing is about this.)

Over time, much as repeated negative experiences make the brain more sensitive to them, I believe that repeatedly savoring positive experiences can train your brain to internalize them increasingly rapidly – in effect, making your brain like Velcro for the positive and Teflon for the negative.

Do you know whether brains of people raised in non-western, cultures like Bhutan or Tibet have the Velcro/Teflon wiring?

Great question!

I don’t think there are any scientific studies on this particular topic – though there is a lot of general research on the universal nature of the fundamental properties of the human brain, that cross cultures. Interestingly, there is much less genetic variation among the members of the human species than among the other primates; apparently, there were several “choke points” in our evolution when less than 100,000 thousand (and at one point around only 15,000 “Java Men” lived: in effect, they were an endangered species at that time). So we all have pretty similar brains, which all do have an evolved tendency toward threat scanning/reaction/memory storage. Then psychological factors shape the expression of those tendencies, including the loving and positive culture of Bhutan and Tibet.

In a nutshell, two things are both true: we have strong tendencies toward negativity and craving, but we also have strong capacities to develop peacefulness, happiness, and love – and I believe these are in fact much stronger! But we must use them, as so clearly the Dalai Lama and others have done.

Why do people beat themselves up? What process is behind that?

I think people beat themselves up – which is different from healthy guidance of oneself (which includes appropriate winces of remorse or shame) – for two reasons: too much inner attacking, and too little inner nurturance. These two forces in the mind are out of balance. Why? Multiple reasons, including individual differences in temperament (some people are more prone to anxiety or grumpiness). But for most people the primary sources are what they have internalized (especially as a child) from their family, peers, and culture. Then, once harsh self-criticism has been internalized along with insufficient internalization of self-nurturance, beating oneself up can take on a life of its own, both as simply a habit and as a way (that goes much too far, at considerable cost) to avoid the possibility of making mistakes or looking bad in front of others.

Whole networks of neurons and related and complex physical processes (e.g., neurotransmitter activity, epigenetic processes) are the basis for acquiring fears, including because a person has been on the receiving end of much anger from others. In other words, learning occurs: emotional, social, somatic, motivational, attitudinal learning: enduring changes in neural structure or function due to a person’s experiences. Check out Joseph LeDoux  and the learning of anxiety and fear.

The amygdala also flags experiences as personally relevant, with a bias in most people’s brains toward flagging what is negatively relevant. Then the hippocampus gets involved, tagging that relevant experience for storage. (I’m simplifying a complex process, that also involves other circuitry in the brain.) The amygdala and hippocampus have receptors for various neurochemicals, including oxytocin, and over time these subcortical parts of the brain (two of each, on either side of the brain) can be modified by our experiences; in effect, they “learn,” too.

How can one express, feel and process negative emotions associated with an experience thoroughly and not create and strengthen negative neural pathways associated with those experiences at the same time?

Basically, three things are simultaneously true:

  • Being with and letting go of an experience – in a mindful way, spacious, disidentified way – does not reinforce it and in fact helps to release it. “A healthy cry” is a beautiful, vastly important thing.
  • Being identified with our negative reactions and marinating in them reinforces them.
  • Positive experiences are not “learned” efficiently so it’s useful to deliberately sustain and internalize them

The points you raise are right at the intersection of key questions in working with trauma: does revisiting the material reinforce it or release it? Check out my slides and talks about the  ways to work with the mind.

How can you erase negative associations in neural structure rather than overwriting them?

When something bad happens the brain sometimes starts to associate neutral stimulus with negative stimulus. There’s been a lot of study on this with animals. A few human examples might be being in an elevator after having a panic attack in one, or working with an authority figure when you’ve had issues with authority in the past, or being outside in the dark after being assaulted out in the dark, or speaking from the heart when that was shamed when you were young. The situations are not inherently bad, but over time we build up negative associations with them because we’ve been hurt in the past. It’s the classic idiom – once burnt, twice shy.

In studies on rats, and also in new studies with humans, the key is (A) the activation of the learned link between the neutral and the negative stimulus, and (B) the repeated activation of the neutral stimulus with no negative associations during the window of re-consolidation.

In practical terms, this would be a matter of surfacing a person’s association between a neutral and negative stimulus, and helping them understand conceptually (at least) that the neutral stimulus is actually inherently neutral. Then, after this process, repeatedly reactivate the neutral stimulus with no negative associations for the next hour or so.

Minimally, you could reactivate the neutral stimulus with neutral associations. And for maximum effect, I think it could be useful to associate the neutral stimulus with authentic positive associations, which you can think of as “antidote experiences.”

Why is it so easy to forget about the true meaning of Thanksgiving – gratitude?

In addition to being so busy these days, we’ve got a brain with what scientists call a built-in “negativity bias” that looks for bad news, overreacts to it, and immediately stores it in emotional memory systems. This worked great for keeping our ancestors alive in the wild, but it’s lousy today for happiness, long-term health – and a grateful Thanksgiving.

You specifically suggest “taking in the good” and that sounds like something all of us should be capable of doing on Thanksgiving… why does it seem so hard? Why do we prefer to nitpick a son’s haircut or a sister’s attitude toward helping clean-up after the meal?

We’ve got a brain with what scientists call a built-in “negativity bias” that looks for bad news, overreacts to it, and immediately stores it in emotional memory systems. This worked great for keeping our ancestors alive in the wild, but it’s lousy today for happiness, long-term health – and a relaxed and happy Thanksgiving.

We’ve got to take charge of this caveman brain or it will continue to take charge of us.

Does it take 5 or 10 positive inputs to offset every negative one?

I think the 5:1 (or 3:1) ratio idea comes from the work of the Gottmans, in which they found that couples with less than a 5:1 ratio of good to bad interactions were at heightened risk for divorce. A related idea comes from Barbara Fredrickson, that people really start to thrive when they have more than a 3:1 ratio of good to bad experiences over time.

There’s been some pushback against these exact numbers, but the basic idea is solid: during evolution (and still today), negative experiences tend to have more urgency and impact than positive ones. In the wild, if you don’t get a “carrot” today, you’ll have a chance to get one tomorrow…but if you don’t avoid that “stick” today, ulp, no more carrots forever. So we are naturally more affected by negative experiences in the moment, plus naturally designed to internalize them. Positive experiences have a quantity effect in the lives of most people, but negative experiences have a quality effect: they are generally more powerful.

So for me the bottom line is:

  • Deal with the bad – Recognize injustice, turn off the stove, assert yourself, etc.
  • Turn to the good – See what is working amidst what is not; see the good in yourself and others.
  • Take in the good – Don’t waste it on your brain. Slow down to stay with the experience for a breath or longer, feel it in your body, and focus on what feels good about it.

Meanwhile, recognize your impact on others. Try to make sure that their good moments with you outnumber the bad ones by at least 3…or 5…or 10! (a good way to stay married…)

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

Get the Just One Thing
Weekly Newsletter

A simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

You can unsubscribe at any time and your email address will never be shared.