Why our brains fixate on the bad (and what to do about it)

Negativity effect — also known as negativity bias — is both a blessing and a curse for those in law enforcement


When you enter a room, do you immediately pick out everything wrong such as a crack in the tile or a scratch on the wall? After a lengthy conversation, do your thoughts focus on the one negative comment that was made? While among a crowd of people, are you constantly scanning for threats?

All these events have one phenomenon in common: negativity effect.

While negativity effect can be lifesaving on duty it can wreak havoc in your personal life.

Our brains have been hardwired through evolution to focus on the negative.
Our brains have been hardwired through evolution to focus on the negative. (Getty Images)

What is negativity effect?

Negativity effect is the brains’ tendency to be impacted more by negative events than positive ones. The brain registers, focuses, stores and recalls negative events much more readily than positive ones.

Studies have shown that the brains’ electrical activity increases when focusing on negative stimuli as compared to positive.

According to neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

Negativity effect can be seen in the following:

  • Noticing negative events and recalling them more vividly than positive ones
  • Dwelling on negative events, including when daydreaming
  • Giving more importance/weight to negative events
  • Focusing on the negative, even if the negative event is insignificant
  • Remembering insults/criticism more than praise
  • Being skeptical of new people, places, or things
  • Making decisions based on avoiding negative results

The biological basis of negativity effect

Our brains have been hardwired through evolution to focus on the negative. Traced back to prehistoric days, primitive man had to be able to register threats to avoid danger and increase survival rates. Individuals who were more attuned to danger (negative stimuli) stayed alive longer and passed on their genes. Focusing on the bad developed as a way of our brains keeping us safe and it is still wired into our genetics today.

Negativity effect and law enforcement

Many of the traits of negativity effect are critical components of officer safety. Individuals working in law enforcement have trained their brains to constantly look for potential threats or what is wrong. Thus, those working in law enforcement have a fine-tuned negativity effect. While negativity effect is critical while on duty, it can lead to negative consequences in an officer’s personal life.

How negativity effect can have an impact on your personal life

Negativity effect can greatly affect personal and work relationships. It predisposes us to search out and expect the worst in people. This phenomenon is also reinforced in general by the situations law enforcement deal with every day.

With this frame of mind, in personal relationships, you may anticipate negative outcomes. This often sets you up for conflict by automatically raising your defenses. This also affects trust in a relationship because it is difficult to build trust when you are always looking for something wrong.

How to overcome negativity effect in your personal life

Just because the brain is predisposed to think a certain way, it doesn't mean you can't change how your mind works. Here are a few tricks that can help you detox and unclutter your mind while off duty and help improve your personal relationships.

1. Write it down

The first step is spending time every day to focus on what is right in your life. An easy way to achieve this is to write down five things for which you are grateful at the end of each day. It could be the sunset, nice weather, your child doing well in their football game, or a compliment received at work. There are a million things to express gratitude about and writing them down helps override your brain’s focus on the negative.

2. Celebrate victories

Celebrate all victories, no matter how small. If you lost 2 pounds, reward yourself with a new workout outfit. If you received a good performance appraisal at work, take your spouse out to a celebratory dinner. Look for victories every day, keep track of them in your gratitude journal and celebrate them. Look back over the list of your victories at the end of every week. This will help remind you of all the positive things in your life.

3. List good experiences

Since the brain’s natural tendency is to remember bad events, prepare a list of good experiences that have happened throughout your life. Take time throughout the day to reflect on these experiences in detail – the more detail, the better.

4. Distract yourself

When you are experiencing negative thought loops or engaging in negative self-talk, do something physical to distract yourself such as going for a jog, spending 10 minutes stretching or lifting weights.

5. Ixnay the jabs

Avoid conflict by holding back on negative jabs. Negative comments cause a great deal of damage to a relationship that is difficult to repair. Take time to cool down and then discuss whatever is bothering you later.

While it is best to avoid negative comments, remember they will happen. Keep in mind that for a healthy relationship, the ideal balance between negative and positive is about 4:1, or four positive interactions per every negative. So next time a negative comment is about to slip out of your mouth, ask yourself if it is worth having to work four times as hard to repair it.

6. Breathe mindfully

Mindful breathing is another way to combat negativity effect. Something that works well is a breathing technique developed by performance coach Brendon Burchard. Sit in a quiet location and breathe in deeply, hold your breath for a few seconds and then exhale. While you breathe out, say out loud “release” several times. 

7. Avoid negative hot zones

Last, limit the amount of time you spend in negative hot zones. Often listening to the news or spending time on social media can create negative emotions. If this is an issue for you, it is best to limit your time in these areas.

While negativity effect has a role in safety while on duty, it can wreak havoc in your personal life. To operate at peak performance on and off duty, you will need to learn to manage your brain’s instinctive tendency toward negativity effect while off duty. A few simple steps can help modify our default settings while not at work and create a happier and healthier home life and a safer and more productive work life.

NEXT: Every cop needs a checkup from the neck up

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