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April 20, 20244 min read

I’m sure you are familiar with the concept of being in your own way when it comes to accomplishing goals. We all have struggles where we can be our own worst enemy and one, in particular, is our human predisposition for negativity and assuming the worst.

We all have these little errors in our judgment and thinking called Cognitive Biases that come from our tendencies to make assumptions instead of gathering and analyzing relevant data. There is actually a cognitive bias called the Negativity Bias that tends to make negative things outweigh the positive in our thinking and decision making.

Examples of this negativity bias explain why we are more likely to think someone is mean because we remember the 1 time they were mean and forgetting the 20 times they were nice. That one negative interaction carries much more weight than the 20 positive interactions and can falsely shape our assumptions about this person. A logical approach would be to view the 1 negative time as a potential outlier since there were so many more positive interactions, but our brain is not often logical!

We do this also with our health and fitness goals, using the one bad workout experience to assume all workouts will be bad and so on, keeping us from reaching our goals and our potential.  A failure to recognize and understand how our brain may be working against us can lead to very frustrating cycles of false starts and failures.

Bottom line: Our ability to reach goals means finding ways to get out of our own way by pursuing positive thinking and outcomes! A bonus is we will also be much happier if we aren’t constantly and unwittingly subjected to these negative forces.

How Do We Overcome the Negativity Bias?


The Negativity Bias

So why are we hardwired to favor the negative?

As a survival function, it is much better to assume the weird looking tree is a predator versus assuming the predator is a weird looking tree. The first assumption can make you alter your path or plans with little consequence for being wrong other than a sigh of relief and being a little out of your way. The second assumption has a big consequence if you are wrong by making you into lunch. In this specific case, negative thoughts can literally save your life!

We all know the importance of first impressions, but have you thought about why those first impressions make such a strong difference? A bad first impression is such a heavy force since we give it more weight than a good impression, and if combined with the confirmation bias where only information that confirms the prejudice is continually being selected, it is nearly impossible to overcome.

In Self Defense, this bias towards assuming the worst can be a good thing when it comes to predators, staying aware and alert, or avoiding other real dangers, but we need to be able to recognize when it is impacting us negatively in many day to day relationships and plans.

How This Keeps Us From Our Goals

Negativity bias leads to unnecessary risk aversion and from being open to new things by immediately focusing on why something won’t work, instead of the ways that it could be made to work. The risk aversion leads to feeling justified in never starting or sticking with anything positive.

A real personal example is I have wanted to begin learning Spanish for a while, but I always put it off because I assumed some combination of it being too difficult, that I wasn’t good with languages, and that I wouldn’t be able to learn it so it would be a waste of time. This has literally been a goal for most of my adult life and the negativity bias was always keeping me from even giving it a try. After finally realizing this in the last year, I have found that I actually enjoy the learning process and am able to make progress.

If you are setting yourself up for failure by assuming you won’t like something, or that you will be bad at it, and dwelling only on the negative, your goals will always remain far out of reach.

How To Overcome

First, learn to see both sides by examining the pros and cons. If you can train your brain to put the negative impulse to the side for a second to first focus on the positive things that could come out of the action, you might not even need to get back to the negative (which often is not even likely to happen).

Second, learn to save your judgment until after giving it a fair try. Approaching the goal with an open mind and having a bit of boldness and daring will open up so much more potential than we realize.

- Derrek

To read more about cognitive biases, see Why Motivation Doesn't Work and A Look At Why We Procrastinate

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