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Breaking free from our negativity bias

05 Jul 2013 | Nick Begley

Bad News

* Pensioner dragged off scooter and mauled to death by pair of killer donkeys

* Twisters of Terror

* My Mother Has Betrayed Me

Got your attention? These are just a handful of alarming headlines I've seen in the mainstream newspapers today. In fact, for every positive story presented in the media there are 17 negative stories, yet this presentation of positive to negative events doesn't tally with reality. For every good thing that you experience in your day-to-day life, do you experience 17 horrendous things? Probably not, you'd be extremely unlucky if you did! But in that case, why does the media present such a negatively biased view of our world? Does bad news really sell?

Research has shown that we have a built-in negativity-bias. We tend to recognise angry faces faster than happy faces and remember bad events more than good events. For healthy relationships we need to experience five positive events to outweigh each negative event. Basically our brains are continually scanning the environment for threats. Doesn't sound great does it? But there's a very good reason for this. Our negativity bias helped us survive in the Savannah when there really were regular threats to our lives. For example, if we heard a rustling in the bushes it was better for us to jump to the conclusion that it was a sabre tooth tiger that would rip us apart and eat us alive, rather that assume it was a harmless bird we could enjoy for lunch.

Our ancestors who assumed the worst lived to see another day and passed their anxious genes down to us, even if they were wrong nine times out of ten. Whereas the ones who assumed the best, if they got it wrong just once, would have been eaten, and therefore less likely to pass their optimistic genes down to us. So in these threatening conditions, it paid to have this negativity bias. Nowadays though, we live in a much much safer environment, where we very rarely have to worry about such dangers at all. But our threat system is still just as active as ever - and ironically it may even more active, thanks to our negatively-biased media coverage.

We're not wired to cope with knowing about every threatening event which occurs around the world. Our brains assume that the bad news we digest is likely to impact us directly. For the main part of human history we lived in tribes of 30-500 people, so when we heard of a murder or an imment famine, our stress response quite rightly kicked into action to motivate us to avoid the potential threat. Today however we don't just read bad news from our local community, which may actually impact us. Rather, we are deluged by stressful information from all around the world, most of which has no impact on our lives whatsover. But our body and mind still take serious note of this bad news - and they respond as if it could impact us. Throw in the internet and global social networking and we risk becoming inundated with stress evoking news 24/7. As a result we develop an overly distrustful and threatening view of the world that can have seriously damaging consequences for our mental and physical health.

So is there an antidote to this negativity bias? One promising route lies in encouraging people to notice more of the good things happening around them and to do more kind deeds for others, which in turn helps restore people's faith the common good. Neuroscientists have found that performing kind acts evokes activity in the same centres of the brain that light up when we experience pleasure. This is why we often feel that warm glow when giving money to charity or watching Amelie take her neighbour's gnome all round the world. But it doesn't stop there, sharing our own happiness is actually likely to make others happy too as, believe it or not, our emotions are contagious.

Researchers from Harvard investigated how happiness propogates through social networks. They looked at more than 50,000 relationship bonds, assessing over 5,000 people over a period of 20 years. The researchers found that when one person became happy, there was a 25% increase in the chances of a friend, a mile away becoming happier. They even found that their happiness impacted people they didn't even know. A friend of a friend of the happy person was 10% more likely to be happy and a friend of a friend of a friend of the happy person was 5.6% likely to be happier. That's three degrees of separation away! To put that in the context of money, they found having an extra $5,000 increased a person's chances of becoming happier by only 2%. In the words of the lead researcher "Someone you don't know and have never met-the friend of a friend of a friend-can have a greater influence than hundreds of bills in your pocket."


To help encourage more good deeds and redress the negativity balance, Martin Saunders has developed Karmr - a free social networking app that lets you get in touch with the many kind acts that everyday people are experiencing all around the world moment by moment. For example, today you can see that Jen bought her friend dinner to celebrate her promotion, Patrick helped a friend start up her food business by arranging a meeting with an expert in the industry for her and Amy just bought a homeless man a cup of coffee.

Apps like Karmr remind people to notice and share the millions of good deeds that they see or perform every day. This helps us feel good and it helps others around us feel good too. But perhaps most importantly it helps to restore that which the media often takes from us unjustly - our faith in the common good of humanity.

Nick -Begley3

Nick Begley is co-founder of PSYT, a company that uses a combination of technology and live training to enhance psychological well-being and productivity. Prior to PSYT, Nick worked as Head of Scientific Research at mindfulness company Headspace.

If you'd like to get involved with a global project to uncover the kindness, good and trust within our societies then why not download Karmr today.




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