We all understand or recognise the concept of our inner voice and most of us would concede that our inner voice is usually critical. The recent advertising campaign “One Beautiful Thought” by Dove France shows how powerful that inner voice can be and how destructive. When the thoughts captured by ordinary women are overheard, being spoken out loud by actresses, those same women are horrified by how their thoughts sound.
But why are our brains so hard-wired to look for the negative rather than the positive? Rick Hanson, a psychologist, sums it up nicely by saying that “The brain is like velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
This inbuilt ability for the brain to be vigilant and wary has served us well in evolution. In order to survive the brain had to look for threat in every situation – avoiding predators, hazards and pain (the ‘stick’) was more successful than approaching the ‘carrots’ of food shelter and pleasure. So the brain developed to program us to make the mistake of a thinking a predator was in the bushes multiple times to avoid making the potentially fatal mistake, just once, of thinking that there wasn’t.
This is where the Amygdala does its job. The brain’s alarm bell or early warning device, it activates our flight or fight response and uses two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news. Negative experiences are far more likely to get stored in our memory and to be used as supporting facts for future ‘threat’ situations.
There is plenty of evidence that support this behaviour in the brain. In studies people can identify angry faces far quicker than happy ones – it takes just one tenth of a second for our brain to register the ‘threat’ of an angry face. Experiments have also shown that people experience more negative emotion if they lose £100 than positive emotion if they win £100.
We can all think of examples of when one negative experience can spoil an otherwise great day, a parking ticket, a rude shop assistant. If we go to a party and meet ten people – nine of whom are charming and friendly and one who is rude and ignorant, we are far more likely to go home feeling wound up by the one bad experience whilst the positive interactions fade into the background.
At my son’s recent parents’ evening, I have to confess (rather shamefacedly) that I remembered the comments about him occasionally being distracted more than the positives about his contribution in class and his academic progress.
In a work situation, this inbuilt default system in the brain to over-estimate threat and under-estimate opportunity can cause us lots of problems.
In our appraisals, or annual reviews, we tend to hang on to the one ‘negative’ comment rather than the overwhelmingly positive feedback. I’m sure we’ve also all been in situations when the comments of a co-worker have been misinterpreted, as the amygdala does its best to protect us from threat, which can lead to a difficult working relationship.
In negotiations we are often expecting an adversarial situation and we’re listening for anything that can be perceived as a threat, we then respond to in a negative way, probably derailing a potentially better outcome for all.
In presentations, we often let nerves get on the way of delivering our message as once again the brain perceives the eyes of the audience upon us as a threat situation.
There is much written about how we can try and counter this negative bias of the brain, it can affect organisations just as much as individuals and make them risk-averse and threat obsessed.
Awareness is a good start, understanding what’s going on and recognising the pattern of behaviour. At Make Yourself we focus on bringing this understanding of how the brain works into all our training and coaching,