Wired to be Negative
Did you know that we have separate brain circuits to handle negative and positive information? And it is probably no surprise to you that the negative circuits are more sensitive than the circuits that handle positive phenomena. This accounts for what scientists call the negativity bias. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, has shown that electrical activity in the brain spikes more strongly in response to negative stimuli than equally potent positive ones. “Most people respond more to the bad than to the good,” says Cacioppo. It’s no accident, therefore, that you have a tendency to weigh flaws more heavily than attributes when sizing up other people.
The negativity bias shows up very strongly when it comes to critical feedback. You overreact to the negative and fail to see the larger picture. Your brain prevent you from taking in the positive comments, and your hypersensitivity leads you to see criticism where none exists. Cacioppo says our brains seem to be wired to turn neutral phenomena, such as a request for more information, into either good or bad – usually bad.
When you are the receiver of critical feedback, it is essential that you give yourself time to get out of your “negative” brain. This means waiting to respond to the feedback; getting a reality check from a neutral party; rereading documents when you are calm and centered.
And if you are the giver of feedback, keep these 8 rules in mind to minimize the negativity bias.
1. Always lead with questions: How do you think you’re doing? It gives the recipient joint ownership of the problem and helps him feel included, not excluded.
2. Never give criticism unless it’s been invited; unsolicited negative feedback only provokes annoyance and will be discounted.
3. Make sure you are seen as having the authority to give corrective feedback. Criticism from those perceived as peers or unqualified to give it incites resistance and rebellion.
4. Distinguish whether a demand for change reflects your needs or is a valid critique of how someone is doing something. Know when “You’re too demanding” really means “I wish I felt more accepted.”
5. Never give feedback when you’re angry; anger alienates the listener. Expressing disappointment is more productive.
6. Know who you’re talking to. Narcissists take any criticism as a personal attack; the insecure lose all self-esteem.
7. Know yourself, too. If you’re relatively insensitive to criticism, curb the tendency to be heavy-handed when delivering it.
8. Expect defensiveness as a first response to criticism; a change in performance may come later.
What hurts most in negative feedback isn’t as much the overt content of the message as the negative bias that gets triggered. Now that you understand your brain’s response, you can step in to prevent the negativity bias from ruining your day. When you start on that downward spiral, it’s time to start activating your positive brain circuits!!!
Source: Psychology Today, March/April 2011, p. 59.