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Memory Has a Negative Bias
Why It’s So Easy to Remember the Bad and Forget the Good
Does this ever happen to you? You get an idea, you get all excited about it, but before you can begin it, nagging voices flood your brain with warnings and negative memories of the past: “You know your bright ideas never work out.” “You have a long history of trying and failing.” “Consider all the risks.” “Your idea is impossible. It can’t be done.” “This is more than you can handle,” yada yada yada. It would be great if some other voices rose up about then to challenge the negative chorus, but just as “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on,” the positive thoughts that might balance this barrage are slow on the uptake.
This phenomenon plays havoc on the self-confidence, and it causes one to hesitate, even when the obstacles are all imaginary. I was exploring this phenomenon with a coach last week, who promptly assigned me to write down 20 positive achievements in my life – a list that I could call upon to counter negative thoughts when they occurred. With considerable effort, I managed to come up with 20 accomplishments I was proud of – a few small victories, nothing Nobel-worthy – but it was a struggle to remember them.
This got me wondering why it took me such effort to remember the good moments, those magic minutes when the endorphins were flowing and all was right with the world, when it was no trouble at all to recall blunders and humiliations. Is it just my personality?
Curiosity got the better of me and I did what passes for research in these times: I went out on the Internet for information – and promptly tumbled down a rabbit hole.
Watch Out for Lions
It’s not just me, it’s DNA. Our human brains are actually hard-wired to respond more intensely to negative stimulation. Scientists speculate that this is an adaptation in our evolution that helped us survive as a species. Its purpose was to protect us from immediate threats such as being eaten by lions, drowned in fast currents, or struck by lightning. Although the environmental threats today are less extreme, we still retain this “negative bias,” a tendency to rely more on negative information than positive.
Here’s an example of how it works: look at the news media. People always complain that the news is too negative, but it’s not an accident, a conspiracy, or a capitalist ploy. It’s hard-wiring. What story exerts a more powerful pull on reader attention – a catastrophic earthquake, or a cute kid’s lemonade stand? Media go with negative stories for the simple reason that news consumers respond instinctively to negative news. It’s a universal; a 2019 study found that humans worldwide pay more attention to negative news.
On a personal level, do you ever have days when four things go spectacularly right for you, but there’s also one stinker, and for the rest of the day you find yourself ruminating about the one negative?
It’s some small consolation to know that it’s hard-wired human nature to think negative. On the other hand, it can really get in your way, especially if you struggle, as I do, with depression. Falling further down the rabbit hole, I learned that some scientists speculate that the negative-bias problem not only is worse for depression sufferers, but also may have a physical cause. One study found that the hippocampus area of the brain, which plays a key role in collecting, coding, and retrieving episodic memories, was 9 to 13 percent smaller in women who were depressed than in women who were not. The difference was most pronounced in women who had experienced depression throughout their lives.
This physical evidence lends credence to a theory first offered by Dr. Adam T. Beck, the father of cognitive therapy and considered “one of the most influential psychotherapists of all time.” Beck thought that depression was a cognitive disorder – a difficulty processing positive information and giving higher priority to negative information – in a way far more extreme than the normal negative bias. The smaller hippocampus area suggests less capacity for memory processing
How To Drown Out the Negative
One thing to keep in mind about memory is that we remember by association. In other words, we retrieve a memory by connecting it to another memory already in storage and linking them. When the associations are strong and clear, the memory is easier to recall.
My coach suggested that I didn’t remember my achievements easily because I didn’t make a big deal out of them. True, I tended to deflect praise and insist they were luck or teamwork or some other formulaic phrase to signal to others that I was not overly proud of myself. Result? No strong association in memory, great difficulty recalling it, and thus giving that rambunctious chorus of nay-sayers more time to fill my head with their skewed perspective.
Isn’t science wonderful?
So. If you didn’t link the event to another clear memory back in the day, you’re too late. Your best bet is to recall a past event now is my coach’s list of 20 achievements or a similar exercise in retrieval. Going forward, take note: When you do something worth remembering, celebrate it; dwell on it; link it with good feelings and the people who shared it with you. You have to lend the event some significance in your own mind for the memory of it to stick.
Does this ring a bell with anyone else?