Negativity bias

Negativity bias

Negativity bias is the name for a psychological phenomenon by which humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences or other kinds of information. This shows up in a number of domains, including:

  • When given a piece of positive information and a piece of negative information about a stranger, people's judgment of the stranger will be negative, rather than neutral (assuming the two pieces of information are not severely imbalanced).[1]
  • If a person has a good experience and a bad experience close together, they will feel worse than neutral. This is true even if they would independently judge the two experiences to be of similar magnitude.
  • Negative information in the simple form of negation has greater impact and creates more attention than similar positive information in the form of affirmation. For example, describing a behavior in an affirmation elicits less attention and cognitive processing than describing the same behavior using a negation. This is related to information processing on negation in cognitive psychology.[2]
  • Very often negativity bias is confused with loss aversion, a principle deeply rooted in prospect theory from Kahneman and Tversky.[3] Levy states that negativity bias refers to negative information, whereas loss aversion refers to negative values.[4]
  • When put in an environment with a variety of information to pay attention to, people will immediately notice the threats instead of the opportunities or the signals of safety.

The definitive publication on negativity bias in the field of psychology is by Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen Vohs[5] and the phenomenon is often referred to by the paper's title: Bad is Stronger than Good. Another key paper on this bias, developed simultaneously and independently, was published in the same year by Rozin and Royzman.[6] Prospect theory, developed by Kahneman and Tversky, is an older and independent area of research that produces many of the same results.[7]

Is bad stronger than good?

A more apt description of the theory is that bad is more attention-getting than good. Positive events exert effects in other ways:

  • Most people feel mildly positive, most of the time[citation needed]. This suggests that negative events that are sufficiently strong to exert the "bad is stronger" effect may not be that common (see positivity offset).
  • Positive events can aid recovery from the cardiovascular wear and tear caused by the stress response to negative events. This is referred to as the undo effect of positive emotions.
  • When positive emotions are experienced regularly, over time, they can have cumulative benefits that are more substantial than the effects of negative emotions. This is referred to as the broaden-and-build effect.
  • As people age, the negativity bias is reduced and may even disappear. It is presently unclear exactly what about aging causes this positivity effect.

Nonetheless, when assessing an immediate situation, it does seem that negative information and negative events predominate, and this has significant implications for everything from aesthetics to trauma recovery to the study of stress and biochemistry.

See also


  1. ^ Fiske, S.T. (1980). Attention and Weight in Person Perception: The impact of negative and extreme information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 889–906.
  2. ^ Wason, P.C. (1959). The Processing of Positive and Negative Information, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 11 (2), 92–107.
  3. ^ Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1984). Choices, Values, Frames, American Psychologist, 39 (4), 341-50.
  4. ^ Levy, J.S. (2003). Applications of Prospect Theory to Political Science, Synthese, 135 (2), 215-41.
  5. ^ Baumeister, Roy; Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen Vohs (2001). "Bad is Stronger than Good". Review of General Psychology 5 (4): 323–370. 
  6. ^ Rozin, Paul; Royzman, Edward B. (2001). "Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion". Personality and Social Psychology Review (5): 296–320. 
  7. ^ Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk, Econometrica, XLVII, 263-291

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