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Both sides now

By Dr Lucia Gannon - 19th Nov 2023

negativity bias

Within each of us there exists our younger and older selves and nothing that is past is ever truly gone

Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained In living every day.

Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now

The term negativity bias was coined by Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman in 2001. Humans give higher weight to negative experiences than positive ones. The reasons for this, they explain, are fourfold:

  • People feel negative events more deeply.
  • As a perceived negative event draws near (such as an examination, or a visit to the dentist), our aversion to this event increases. This is not the same for positive events, which have a flatter gradient.
  • If an event has both negative and positive aspects, people tend to evaluate the whole event as negative; for example, a wedding that went beautifully but ended in a drunken bar-room brawl.
  • Negative emotions are more complex and require more cognitive effort to analyse than positive ones and therefore are more memorable.

As another psychologist Rick Hanson puts it, our brains are like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to our perceptions of growing old. A recent significant birthday had me feeling like I had taken a giant leap across a wide chasm and landed in a strange land that I had never intended to visit. The reason for this, I presume, was the perceived loss of youth that these roundy figures signified. In the months before and after this big event I imagined age as a thief stealing what was positive and good, leaving me ill-equipped to face the future. I suspect that I am not alone in these feelings. Age milestones, just like retirement or children leaving home, can be the perfect breeding ground for negativity. As Rozin and Royzman explain, “the pain of losing is much more powerful than the pleasure of winning,” and when faced with something we consider a loss it is easy to overlook all the gains.

There are good reasons why humans and animals are always on the lookout for potential dangers or losses. Those who were not alert to such things were eaten by predators or lost in the wild. Consequently, as we go about our daily lives, driving to work, cooking dinner, chatting with friends, our brains are on the alert for threats, errors, and misunderstandings. And as we grow older this vigilance increases. The possibility of illness, decreasing mobility, and reducing vision may be some of the things that almost imperfectively change our behaviour. Negativity and threat make us limit our options, curtail our opportunities, and justify our reasons for doing so. We do not want any further losses. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, won a Nobel Prize in economics for demonstrating this very thing, that most of us will do more to avert a loss than acquire an equivalent gain. And so, we begin to live our lives on narrow tracks and our negative predictions become reality. Concerns about ageing are not petty or frivolous. They have nothing to do with the increasing number of wrinkles, sunspots, or thinning hair. They occur when our brains do what they are hard-wired to do, even when we are perfectly healthy and know intellectually that age is just a number.

Hanson, a psychologist at the Greater Good Science Centre, University of California, Berkeley, suggests three strategies for dealing with negativity bias:

  • Deliberately look for, recall, and create positive experiences.
  • Savour these experiences.
  • Sense and intend that these experiences sink into you and become part of the fabric of your being.

When applied to ageing, most of us can look back over the course of our lives and count innumerable gains. Children, grandchildren, friends, communities, a home, a career. Savoring any one of these things can be enough to fill the well of positivity. Doing this also rewires our brains to be more alert to positive events, keeping fears and negativity to a minimum.

If this sounds a little too simplistic or lowbrow, one might want to ponder the concept of time itself. Hermann Weyl, a German theoretical physicist born in the 19th Century, claimed that taking a ‘God’s eye view’ of the earth, the world does not happen, it just is. That there is no need to slice time into past, present or future. That all of time exists at once. While I have difficulty understanding this, it certainly helps to imagine that within each of us there exists our younger and older selves and that nothing that is past is ever truly gone.

As Frank Wilczek, a Nobel laureate and theoretical physicist at MIT writes in his new book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality: “A human lifetime contains far more moments of consciousness than universal history contains human lifetimes. We are gifted with an abundance of inner time.”

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