Why Do We Focus So Much on the Bad Stuff?

Forget the philosophy for a second and just look at the evolutionary purpose of negativity bias.

This is about survival. We used to say that “strong survive,” but now we know a little better.  Now we know that those who adapt survive.

Physical adaptation is done in part by thousands of years of evolution, and partly by our bodies actually adapting to our immediate circumstances. Psychological adaptation is currently most often spoken of as emotional resilience.

Many are encouraged to “build up” their emotional resilience by only focusing on the positive. And yet we have this thing called negativity bias wherein our subconscious mind grants higher scores and better memory retention to negative experiences than positive.

In self-help circles, people are encouraged to wax philosophic about this and told they need to learn to focus on the positive better and to value the positive more by valuing themselves more. All well and good until you notice that the inverse of these ideas to is avoid the uncomfortable and devalue anything negative, the which actually weakens your emotional resilience.

Let me put it to you this way:

If you are bleeding, that is the only thing you should be focusing on because too much bleeding leads to death. In the wild, an animal in a trap will gnaw of its foot to get away and then — once safe — lay down and hold still until it has healed.

However, not all situations cause bleeding, a visual sign that anyone can see that will make them say “I get it, go do what you need to do to heal, I will help if I can.” Situations requiring some amount of emotional resilience, for instance, do not have outward signs because they are all in our heads. Or do they?

Sometimes, when suffering an emotional blow, an individual will feel as if there is no worse suffering than their suffering and no one could possibly understand. When calm, the such thought is clearly hyperbolic. In the moment, it is completely true for that person.

Because that person’s brain wants them to learn their lesson. You did a thing and now you are hurting and now you need to heal while thinking about how you’re going to make better decisions moving forward.

We focus on the negativity because pain and discomfort are where all of our lessons on survival take root. We can learn plenty when we’re happy, and we should. Happiness when while learning can cause us to seek more learning and there’s a great little feedback loop there.

But when we’re hurting, it’s survival time. If you’re not able to help anyone in your state, remove yourself and heal yourself and then re-engage.

Emotional resilience isn’t just your ability to roll with the punches, it’s also the negativity bias telling you to take a break from being resilient so you can heal from the punches and maybe even prevent them later.

Also published on Medium.