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Negative Mental States Become Negative Neural TraitsYour brain has a natural negativity bias, which means it’s always on the lookout for anything bad: potential dangers or losses. This vigilance helped our ancestors survive because more reactive, nervous, and clingy animals had better chances of passing on their genes.

This negative hair-trigger still exists and can activate when we get stuck in traffic, rush to meet a work deadline, argue with our partner, juggle taking care of the kids while fixing dinner and talking on the phone, or read the headlines. So our brains’ negativity bias mostly leaves us anxious, stressed, and worried today.

Your Brain Focuses on the Negative

When the slightest potential for trouble arises or the smallest thing goes wrong, your brain zeroes in on that one thing downplaying everything else. If you get a glowing performance review from your boss, you’ll focus on those few constructive criticisms. Even though a first date goes well, you’ll replay spilling your water at dinner over and over.

Your brain perceives negative stimuli more rapidly and easily than positive ones. We recognize angry faces more quickly. We overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. We over-learn from bad experiences and under-learn from good ones. In your brain, bad overpowers good every time because its number one priority is your safety. So, it remembers anything painful or negative to avoid it next time. Over time, these negative records accumulate and snowball making you more sensitive to anything negative, and your brain becomes more easily alarmed and reactive.

In his book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Rick Hanson writes, “One way or another, negative mental states can easily become negative neural traits.”  He continues:

…[F]eeling stressed, worried, irritated, or hurt today makes you more vulnerable to feeling stressed, etc., tomorrow which makes you really vulnerable the day after that. Negativity leads to more negativity in a very vicious cycle. 

You Can Give Your Brain a More Positive Tilt

The negativity bias affects the physical structure-building processes of your brain as negative experiences get stored in implicit memory. Implicit memory is below conscious awareness and the basis for how you feel and function.  The contents of implicit memory have much more impact on your life than explicit memory, which is declarative knowledge and personal recollections.

Unless a positive experience is highly novel or intense, most good news has a little lasting effect on the brain.  Hanson writes, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”  Even though the negativity bias is great for ensuring survival, it’s lousy at promoting happiness, peace, fulfilling relationships, and long-term physical and mental health.

OK.  So your brain is tilted against living happily ever after.  But, don’t despair.  You can put the odds back in your favor.  How?  The best way to compensate for the negativity bias is to intentionally “take in the good.” Hanson gives detailed instructions on how to do this in his book, and I explain them in this article, Look For The Good And You’ll Find It.

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  1. The reason negatives are perceived quicker than positive is that it is aligned with our survival instinct system. The good news is that through the conditioning process we can alter the speed with which positives are accepted and stored for later use. The more positives we deliberately apply the stronger the memory so the faster the acceptance.

  2. You are so right, Tony. We have to make an intentional effort to override the brain’s natural negativity bias trying to protect us. BUT it can be done!!

  3. Such an awesome subject to consider. Makes me think about how I can hardwire and nurture a more supportive environment. Thank you!

    • Mikey, I’m sure the doomed midwest bias was wired into your brain in addition to the natural negativity bias. I, too, learned negative thinking patterns which only compounded the bias. Our upbringing, society, and other life factors just pile on top of the innate negative slant. No wonder there are so many depressed people, huh? (Just my theory.)

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