As humans, we always seem to pay much more attention to the negative than the positive.
You’re reading through reviews of a hotel you’re thinking about booking. The majority are complimentary, and you’re feeling sure this could be the right hotel for you. But you come across one negative comment, and are immediately put off. You decide to look for somewhere else to stay instead.
You’re thrilled with your new haircut and receive plenty of comments about how much it suits you. And then one person makes a negative remark. Suddenly, you’re not feeling quite so confident in the new you.
You meet someone for the first time and hit it off right away. You have lots in common, and it seems you could become good friends. But a couple of hours into your encounter they say something offensive. You walk away from the conversation and never see them again.
Even in a sea of positivity, we’ll always anchor ourselves to that one negative comment. We home in on that one small thing, and it alters our thoughts and behaviours.
It’s down to the psychological phenomenon called negativity bias.
The negativity bias
The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, is the concept that things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on an individual’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.
In other words, negative emotional experiences have a much bigger impact on our thoughts and behaviours than neutral or positive ones. This is why good relationships can be destroyed with just one bad incident. And why one negative experience can turn an otherwise very positive day, into one we’d rather forget.
A 1998 study by professors at Ohio State University shed some light into the science behind the bias. They showed participants a series of images known to arouse either positive, negative, or neutral feelings. At the same time, they recorded the electrical activity in the participants’ brains, specifically in the cerebral cortex - the part responsible for information processing. Across participants, there was an increased surge in electrical activity when viewing the unpleasant images, proving that the brain reacts more strongly to negative stimuli.
How we respond to negative feedback at work
The negativity bias would suggest that receiving negative feedback at work can have much more of an effect on an individual’s emotional well-being than things like praise, compliments and rewards.
Even if most of the feedback we receive is positive, we can still find ourselves stuck on repeat, obsessing over the negative comments. And it can leave us feeling hurt and demotivated.
But receiving feedback, including that which is more negative or constructive, is invaluable for your career success.
So how can we accept and act on negative feedback without becoming consumed by it?
How to overcome the negativity bias
Adopt a growth mindset
Receiving criticism can sometimes feel like a personal attack. But adopting a growth mindset can help us to see criticism in a different way. People with growth mindsets perceive their skills to be adaptable and believe they can be developed on. They don't view criticism as an attack on their identity, but rather, as an opportunity to adapt or try harder so that they can develop and improve. And anyone can develop a growth mindset.
Create a habit
It is possible to train the brain to develop certain behaviours and habits. And it can be helpful for people to create a habit for how they behave when they receive negative feedback. If you devise a healthy habit for receiving negative feedback, where you accept it and move forward, you'll instantly follow those steps rather than getting hung up on the emotional side. You might train yourself to analyse the negative feedback and follow up with the person who gave it so that you can ask questions and better understand it. Then you focus on how you can improve and set goals based on the strategies you develop.
Most negative or constructive feedback is given with positive intent. Your colleague or manager didn’t set out to put you down or make you feel useless. They wanted to help you to grow or flourish. If we can accept and remember this, it can help us to see negative or constructive feedback in a positive light. It will sit with you more comfortably, and you can move on knowing you have an opportunity to progress and better succeed in your role. To affirm this, each time you receive feedback, thank the person that gave it to you.
The negativity bias suggests that negative feedback can consume our attention. And if we hold onto it too much and obsess over it, it can not only stunt our development, but it can also seriously affect our emotional wellbeing. But negative or constructive feedback is an important tool for self-development and growth, and we need to be able to accept and act on it in a positive way.