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Why We Focus on the Negative

Rick Hanson Explains the Evolution of the Negativity Bias


Much can be made of the power of positive thinking, but the real question is, why do we tend toward the negative in the first place?

Rick Hanson has a lot of insight to offer into the negativity bias that is ingrained in us. It all began with our early ancestors who had to learn (and quickly!) that the primary rule of living in the wild was eat, or be eaten.

The human brain is continuously trying to learn from experience, so this lesson has stuck with us through the years. Negative experiences—like being prey in the wild—leave an impression that is fast-tracked into the part of our memory that focuses on learning.

Check out this clip where Rick talks in depth about the origins of the negativity bias:

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist with an interest in the intersection of psychology, neurology, and Buddhism, and an invited presenter at Oxford, Stanford, and the University of California at Berkeley. He’s the author of 15 books, including Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.

Rick joins Susan Johnson, Joan Klagsbrun, Jay Efran, Ron Potter-Efron, and Diana Fosha for the rebroadcast of our popular webcast series:

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New Strategies for Deepening Therapeutic Healing
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One Response to Why We Focus on the Negative

  1. Jeffrey Von Glahn says:

    There’s an equally valid explanation for the “negativity bias.” The unresolved effects of psychologically hurtful events, registered in the brain, causes the brain to be in protection mode so it won’t be subjected to the same kind of hurtful experience. Not attending to positive experiences is a part of this as the person, subconsciously, doesn’t want to be reminded of what she/he missed out on. My solution is my concept of therapeutic crying/catharsis (PN,May/June, 2012), which has the apparent effect of dissolving the residual effect and the person not only doesn’t overreact to negative or threateningly so stimuli but is eager to engage with her environment. Therapeutic crying occurs quite frequently in psychotherapy but the ill-founded fear of re- traumatization keeps it from being recognized. There’s no need for learning how to cope with manifestations of the (hypothesized) negativity bias. Maslow addressed this bias with his ideas of being- and deficiency-motivation.

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