Negativity Bias: Obsessing on the Missing 10%

Negativity Bias: Obsessing on the Missing 10%

Nov 16, 2016

Our Tendency for Negativity Bias

We are hardwired to dwell on the negative. That’s not a sweeping generalization but a scientific finding.

In tests done by scientists like John Cacciopo, Ph.D. of the University of Ohio, there was a significantly higher electrical activity in human brains when exposed to negative images.

Clifford Nass, Communications professor of Stanford University said that we process negative moments in our brain differently leading us to recall them more than happy moments. We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data such that they affect us longer.

Of course, the cornerstone study in Behavioral Economics by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Trevsky known as the Prospect Theory or Loss Aversion states that we avoid losses more than we seek gains because the negative emotion attached to a loss is twice more powerful than the positive emotion attached to a gain.


The Purpose of This Negativity Bias

If we study the evolution of the Homo sapiens (human being) we will find out that the development of negativity bias was important in our survival as species. We became adept at focusing on the dangers in order to survive. Negative and dangerous experiences were platforms for learning, and identifying and avoiding them was how we survived. There was no time to lose in analyzing whether a scary-looking predator could co-exist with us because in a matter of seconds we could be eaten up!


The downside of Negativity Bias in Present Time

Fortunately, we have archived a tremendous amount of knowledge based on what those who lived before us have experienced and we know quite a bit about what’s good and bad for us. We have likewise designed our world to eliminate unnecessary exposure to predators and other dangers.

So in our present world, what has negativity bias done to us?

It is still good to listen to our instincts about the not-so-obvious dangers that still surround us. This is not a call to ignore the negative but it’s a reminder that obsessing on what is bad is not good for us. Here are some examples around us:

  1. A couple who started lovey-dovey are now married for several years and has become too pre-occupied with the mundane things in a husband and wife relationship – too focused on making both ends meet and caring for their kids and respective careers. What used to be “cute” is now an irritation. Tired at night, there’s no more time and energy to say, “Tell me about your day at work.” or “Good night handsome!” Then he meets someone who’s very interested in the work he does and sometimes praises even his looks. One coffee leads to lunch to dinner to after-dinner because “She appreciates me, unlike my wife…” Before he knows it, he’s in a problematic situation of having an affair. What started as an obsession on the missing 10% (his wife was no longer interested in his work and looks) made him throw away all the good things that he proclaimed to the world in his heart-warming and tearjerker marriage vows!
  1. A mother who receives the report card of her son and immediately focuses on what’s missing, “Hey what happened to Math? Why did you get a C? Weren’t you in the Math club back in grade school? How can you take up Management Engineering with a C in Math? Yadah…yadah…yadah!” She totally overlooked the As in English, P.E. and Filipino.
  1. People focus too much on what’s wrong in the government, never mind all the other positive things achieved during the regime. They angrily vote for someone who promises change, no matter who promises it. Even if a lot of the characteristics carried by the candidate seem to go against their very core values about family, competence, decency, integrity, etc.

There is danger in focusing too much on the missing 10%. (Note: I’m using 10% loosely here to express our tendency to overreact and dwell on the negative, giving it attention far beyond its real significance.)

  1. You miss on the chance to further enhance what is already your advantage on hand. Look at the son who handed his report card to his mom. Chances are he will now devote more time to Math to please his mom. However, in Gallup Strengths Finder approach, the focus should actually be on what we are already good at. We are uniquely gifted and if we focus too much on (instead of just manage) our weaknesses, we will only achieve mediocrity at best. On the other hand, if we focus on what we are already good at, we have a chance to attain the level of mastery!
  1. Too much focus on the missing 10% makes us unnecessarily angry. Angry people are not in a state of mind and emotion conducive to making good decisions. In Filipino we say, “Ang pikon, talo!”


What now?

I welcome change because that is the healthy way of life. Someone who doesn’t change is in danger of being extinct, or, at the very least, irrelevant. But the problem with deciding for change when you focus too much on what’s wrong is that we become too angry. There are so many angry people in the world. So angry that they are not thinking rationally. So angry that they can’t wait to throw out the window everything that symbolizes status quo. So angry that they overlook what is good in their present condition. As the scientific studies show, we feel pain but not the absence of it.

For the three examples above we are better off handling those situations by recognizing our negativity bias and compensating for it. Do you know that studies show that for a couple to survive, the ratio should be 5 happy moments to 1 unhappy moment? For the child who gives the report card, please focus first on the As before you move the discussion to the problem subjects. In assessing the performance of the government, consciously take note of the positives that have been achieved in order to make informed choices, instead of the usual “vote with the middle finger.”

This negativity bias is the human instinct that protected us from being extinct back in the days when we were too vulnerable to physical dangers. Today, keeping this negativity bias may actually hurt us. Being nega may be a drag that prevents us from keeping meaningful relationships and improving our gifts to attain mastery. On a wider scale, this negativity bias can bring destabilizing forces that prevent us from moving forward as a society.




  1. I will speak at the Kerygma Conference on November 17, 2016 at the MOA Arena. My talk is entitled “AWESOME FAMILY, BY DESIGN (Applying Behavioral Economics in Raising a Great Family)” Please register by clicking link:

Poster Kerygma-min

  1. I will speak at the launch of the Relationship Survey Index of PruLIfe on November 24, 2016. Venue and other details to be announced.
  2. To those who want to experience an extraordinary dance concert, watch Unveiled (a festival of artists in one movement) on November 27, 2016 4pm AFP Theater. Tickets @P400, call 09173287222. This is spearheaded by Michelle Kawpeng of REDph. Photo by Lost Boys Productions, Marketing by Brand’eM. Click link to know more about it. com/RawElementsDance


  1. Watch out for the continuation of my FQ talks in cooperation with Security Bank. Dates and venues to be announced.
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Rose Fres Fausto is a speaker and author of bestselling books Raising Pinoy Boys and The Retelling of The Richest Man in Babylon (English and Filipino versions). Click this link to read samples – Books of FQ Mom Rose Fres Fausto. She is a Behavioral Economist, Certified Gallup Strengths Coach and the grand prize winner of the first Sinag Financial Literacy Digital Journalism Awards. Follow her on Facebook and You Tube as FQ Mom, and Twitter & Instagram as theFQMom.

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