A Philosopher's Blog

Negativity Bias

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 29, 2011
Karl Pribram and colleagues have presented evi...

Hard wired for negativity.

While scientists have only fairly recently gotten around to studying cogitative biases, philosophers have been teaching about them for centuries-typically in the form of various logical errors. However, it is good that the scientific attention to these biases is serving to attract additional attention to them.

Everyone of us is, of course, loaded down with all sorts of cognitive biases. Some scientists even claim that such biases are hard wired into the brain, thus making them part of our actual anatomy and physiology. If so, it would seem to suggest that people might be more or less biased based on the specifics of their hard-wiring. This would help explain some of the variation in people when it comes to being able to reason well.

While we all suffer from cognitive biases (and other biases) we do have the capacity to resist and even overcome such biases and reason in a more objective manner. As this takes effort and training (as well as the will to want to think critically) it is not very common for folks to try to overcome these biases. Hence, bad reasoning tends to dominate.

One standard bias is known as negativity bias. While some people are more prone to focus on the negative than others, apparently we all have an inbuilt tendency to give more weight to negative information relative to positive information. This would help to account for the fact that people tend to consider a single misdeed to outweigh a large number of good deeds.

Of course, people do also have other biases that can lead them to weigh the positive more than the negative. For example, people tend to ignore or downplay negative aspects of people, causes, and things they like and weigh the positive more heavily. This often involves embracing inconsistency by applying different standards relative to what one likes or dislikes (see, for example, how Fox News and MSNBC evaluate various political matters).

Interestingly, this bias seems to occur at neurological level. The brain actually has more neural activity when it is reacting to negative information than when reacting to positive information. Assuming these results apply generally, we are actually hard-wired for negativity.

The defense against this involves being aware of this bias and exhibiting even greater caution in assessing negative information-especially when it involves negative information about something we do not like. For example, folks who dislike the Tea Party will weigh negative information about them more heavily than positive evidence and will tend to make little effort to determine whether the evidence has been properly assessed. The same holds true for folks who dislike the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spin-offs. They will take any negative evidence as being quite significant and ignore or undervalue positive evidence.

This bias does help explain a great deal about how people see political events and assess them.

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31 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on October 29, 2011 at 5:49 am

    I’m familiar with negative bias as it’s part of our consideration when doing intelligence analysis. Arthur Schopenhaur talks in his essays about the things you point out–that people feel pain more strongly than pleasure. He also thinks that the more intelligent someone is, the more pain they feel:

    “This world is the battle-ground of tormented and agonized beings who continue to exist only by each devouring the other. Therefore, every beast of prey in it is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of torturing deaths. Then in this world the capacity to feel pain increases with knowledge, and therefore reaches its highest degree in man, a degree that is the higher, the more intelligent the man” ~Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity and Suffering of Life.

    Doesn’t that just make you heart glow with hope?

    However, your point about Occupy Wall Street is really stretching it. The burden is on the protesters to prove that they have legitimate points. They’ve irritated the average Joe as much as anyone. Their association with known leftists an anti-globalism groups such as ACORN and Adbusters does not lend itself to credibility, but to my belief that a bunch of agitators (only 15% of whom are unemployed) got together to do some agitating. Your response is likely to be: “That doesn’t prove they don’t have a point”. As far is anyone can tell, their point seems to be: “I want things to be better”. Doesn’t everyone?

    The group has no real intellectual leadership that give it any technical credibility and there’s a lot of marxists and anarchists mixed in with the group. It’s the same old suspects, Mike.

  2. magus71 said, on October 29, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Actually, Newt Gingrich hit it on the head:

    “Let me draw a distinction. Virtually every American has a reason to be angry. I think virtually very American has a reason to be worried. I think the people who are protesting in Wall Street break into two groups: one is left-wing agitators who would be happy to show up next week on any other topic, and the other is sincere middle-class people who frankly are very close to the Tea Party people who care. And actually…you can tell which are which. The people who are decent, responsible citizens pick up after themselves. The people who are just out there as activists trash the place and walk off and are proud of having trashed it, so let’s draw that distinction.”


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 29, 2011 at 4:55 pm

      It would be interesting to do an actual study to see whether littering is more prevalent on the left or right (or neither). I’m usually cast as leaning left, but I not only do not litter I actively pick up trash when I am running or walking. I wonder what Newt says about corporations with poor environmental records?

  3. T. J. Babson said, on October 29, 2011 at 8:31 am

    People go to great trouble to construct a worldview, accumulating facts, experiences, prejudices, etc. and once it is built it isn’t easily disturbed.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on October 29, 2011 at 8:39 am

    For example, when you read this (in Wisconsin, no less), you fit it into your picture of the OWS movement:

    City officials temporarily denied Occupy Madison a new street use permit Wednesday after protesters violated public health and safety conditions and failed to follow the correct processes to renew or amend a permit.

    The permit, which expired Wednesday at noon, required Occupy Madison protesters to relocate from their current space at 30 West Mifflin Street, also called 30 on the Square.

    A neighboring hotel’s staff alleged voiced concerns about having to recently escort hotel employees to and from bus stops late at night due to inappropriate behavior, such as public masturbation, from street protesters.

    In addition, officials agreed further occupation should not be allowed to continue without restrooms on site to avoid further public health violations.

    “You can’t be affecting the safety and health of other people around you,” Madison Fire Prevention Officer Jerry McMullen said. “With the public health violations and the complaints I’ve heard, I don’t believe it meets the spirit of the ordinance to a street use permit.”


  5. dhammett said, on October 29, 2011 at 10:00 am

    “. . .inappropriate behavior, such as public masturbation, from street protesters.
    “In addition, officials agreed further occupation should not be allowed to continue without restrooms on site to avoid further public health violations.”

    The restrooms will likely take care of the masturbation problem. There are young people, and their hormones ooze from every pore. But I hope they provide plenty of restsrooms.

    Newt’ s “middle-class people who frankly are very close to the Tea Party people who care. . . . .The people who are decent, responsible citizens. . . pick up after themselves.” are running low on hormones and can keep our masturbatory habits in check. But, how many times are we going to walk in on some dude playing with himself before we decide the whole protest gig isn’t worth it. Special restrooms for the ‘decent’ and ‘responsible’, please!
    I like soft toilet paper. And don’t forget the hand sanitizer.

    Mostly, it sounds like an establishment attempt to split the herd.

    • T. J. Babson said, on October 29, 2011 at 11:41 am

      dhammett, I love how you made a big issue of the public health hazard posed by the girls’ lemonade stand, but seem to have no problem with the unsanitary conditions at the OWS protests. 🙂

      • dhammett said, on October 29, 2011 at 11:58 am

        Are the protesters marketing a product that might contain e coli? 😦

        And who said I have “no problem with the unsanitary conditions at the OWS protests” ? You little devil, you didnt’ even read my whole post did you? I specifically said “don’t forget the hand sanitizer.”

        I also believe I implied that there should be provisions made– like additional restrooms or additional drainage or maybe just old socks—to handle the overflow of semen. 🙂

      • magus71 said, on October 29, 2011 at 1:12 pm

        Michael Moore showed up when he heard there was free food:


  6. T. J. Babson said, on October 29, 2011 at 10:01 am

    This helps round out the picture as well. Put up tents, but sleep in a nice, warm bed.

    The thermal images that prove 90% of tents in the Occupy camp in London are left EMPTY overnight

    These are the damning images that prove the anti-capitalist protest that has closed St Paul’s Cathedral is all but deserted at night.

    Footage from a thermal imaging camera taken late at night reveals just a fraction of the makeshift camp was occupied.

    An independent thermal imaging company, commissioned by the Daily Mail, captured these pictures after similar footage from a police helicopter found only one in ten tents were occupied after dark.

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2053463/Occupy-London-90-tents-St-Pauls-protest-camp-left-overnight.html#ixzz1cBAsom00

    • magus71 said, on October 29, 2011 at 10:19 am


    • WTP said, on October 29, 2011 at 10:32 am

      Along similar lines, there’s the bias in regard to permitting:

      Judson Phillips, of the Tea Party Nation, told Fox News that he’s been getting e-mail from conservatives across the country wondering why they were charged by the government to hold rallies.

      “Tea Party groups were given a bit of harassment as they tried to secure permits to hold rallies and yet when these Occupy groups come in – even though they don’t have permits, they’re allowed to do whatever they want,” he said.

      Phillips said his group failed to comply with one regulation and were told they could not hold a rally at Legislative Plaza in Nashville.

      “I was specifically told by one bureaucrat that if we showed up, they would have the Highway Patrol arrest us,” he said. “We could not do our event there, but Occupy Nashville has been camping out on Legislative Plaza for three weeks.”

      And according to a spokesperson for the Tennessee Dept. of General Services, Occupy Nashville has been allowed to camp without securing a permit.


      Wendy Caswell, with the Louisville Tea Party told WHAS that Occupy Louisville protesters were allowed to get a permit to camp in Jefferson Park until Dec. 31st.

      According to a spokesperson for the mayor, the Occupy group had to pay a $25 fee.

      However, the tea party group had to pay $75 for a one day permit to use the same park. They were also required to purchase insurance, hire security and medical personnel.

      “Why isn’t the same standard (applied) to the Occupy Louisville movement,” Caswell asked radio host Mandy Connell.

      No bias in the reflection on bias here.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 29, 2011 at 5:01 pm

        Preventing people from assembling in a peaceful way is a clear violation of the first amendment.

        “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

        As such, much of the bureaucratic stuff erected to block or restrict assemblies would seem to be unconstitutional. This applies to those trying to block peaceful Tea Party assemblies and peaceful Occupier events.

        I suppose that the state could deny assembly by planning to send police to engage in violence, thus ensuring that the assembly will not be peaceful.

        • WTP said, on October 29, 2011 at 10:49 pm

          Notice what Mike does here. I provide a couple of articles showing how the Tea Party groups were treated differently from the Occupiers, and Mike puts it back in a context of “This applies to those trying to block peaceful Tea Party assemblies and peaceful Occupier events.” Again, no bias here.

          And what violence are you speaking of, Mike? The “they would have the Highway Patrol arrest us,”? Violence would only ensue if there was a concerted effort to resist arrest, with violence. Is this another instance where you feel the Tea Party people are just like the Occupiers? Notice how there wasn’t so much as even a peaceful confrontation with Tea Partiers at Legislative Plaza in Nashville? In spite of their grievances, the Tea Party people chose NOT to break the law or engage in any form of confrontational behavior.

          Mike, wouldn’t you say your comment on events in this regard contains a considerable amount of bias?

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 31, 2011 at 1:56 pm

            What is my specific bias and how does it impact the truth of my claims and the logic of my arguments?

            • WTP said, on October 31, 2011 at 7:00 pm

              Your bias is in ignoring the obvious difference in the way the OWS and Tea Party were treated and in how they reacted to their treatment, then twisting the discussion into a point about peaceful assembly. I think your comment in regard to “violence” is quite the tell. You do not address one single point that I raised in my last post.

              Mike, I’ve tried to engage you in discussion on numerous points but once you get into a position where you can no longer defend your defenseless position, you give up. You are not honestly were interested in the answer to “What is my specific bias and how does it impact the truth of my claims and the logic of my arguments?” Just like you were not honestly interested in a discussion concerning the basics of economics.

              I can’t speak for Magus, TJ, or anyone else here, but don’t think you can pull the wool over my eyes like you can the minions in your classrooms. I’ve been out in the world. I know what is and what isn’t based on real world experience. I’m curious…did you even get my joke in response to your Mitt/Cain-bashing post? Do you understand the point of it?

  7. WTP said, on October 29, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Oh, puleeze…Aren’t the Occupiers exhibiting significant negative bias themselves? They’re nothing but nihilists. Can’t agree on what they’re for, but unanimous in what they’re against. Ah, but there’s my negative bias itself, which I’m sure some philosopher will be happy to point out. Fortunately, philosophers have the capacity to resist and even overcome such biases and reason in a more objective manner.

    Mike, have you exhibited any of these negative biases in our discussions about wealth and where it comes from? Of course not. You’re trained to be objective, you’ve been credentialed as such, therefore you are objective. And of course, you can always give up on a discussion when the going gets difficult. Or claim what you said was not what you said. None of that is a bias, however.

    • magus71 said, on October 29, 2011 at 11:02 am

      “Aren’t the Occupiers exhibiting significant negative bias themselves? ”

      Good point.

  8. magus71 said, on October 29, 2011 at 11:07 am

    “This often involves embracing inconsistency by applying different standards relative to what one likes or dislikes (see, for example, how Fox News and MSNBC evaluate various political matters).”

    Not in my case; if Ralph Peters, Charles Krauthammer,and George Will were employed by MSNBC, I’d watch MSNBC.

    • dhammett said, on October 29, 2011 at 11:48 am

      You should watch This Week with Christiane Amanpour. You get George Will every week. And for a kicker you sometimes get Michael Gerson!

      Peters is intriguing:

      Peters emphasizes that “from what I’ve heard nobody in the military is defending this guy”‘
      Yet, there’s this:

      I’m a bit perplexed by the way the military has handled this so far. PFC Bergdahl went missing in June 2009. As reported in Wikipedia—if you have more accurate up-to-date info, please provide it— by April of 2010 he appears in a video with a beard, an apparent convert to the other side. Yet, according to the same wiki article , “On June 17, 2011 he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant (E-5) “.
      If Peters would have had his way, Bergdahl would have been beheaded by the Taliban long before he was promoted as a cost-saving measure, despite the fact that wiki doesn’t seem to indicate that the military has any proof that he deserted. You’re in intelligence; perhaps you can sort this out for me.

      • magus71 said, on October 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm

        This is a pretty old clip. Peters apologized for his remark. But he is essentially right that the evidence points to Bergdahl deserted in a time of war, at least that’s what the evidence points to. Peters should not have said that as those type of public statements can be used by the enemy against Bergdahl.

        Of course the left has seized the statement and flooded the internet with this story to attack Fox News.

        The most recent footage of Bergdahl shows him without a beard http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1336732/Bowe-Bergdahl-Alive-Video-emerges-US-soldier-held-Taliban-18-months.html

        The linked story says he may be being beaten.

        Any further information

        Bergdahl was promoted to E5, according to the Department of the Army. He will be promoted as his time in service allows, as he is still allowed due process for any alleged crimes of desertion or aiding the enemy.

        • dhammett said, on October 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm

          How high could Bergdahl move in the military hierarchy while he’s missing ? The reason I’m asking is this: If Bergdahl would be beheaded by the Taliban before he could be tried in a military court would he be deemed innocent, or would he be tried in absentia? In theory, if Bergdahl had a wife and kids, would they be eligible for any military benefits in such a situation?

          Just to add a few observations to build on Peter’s speculations–though, unlike Peters, I’ll apologize for this ahead of time, so it doesn’t hang in the atmosphere like a noxious chili fart 🙂 .
          “Bergdahl performed with the Sun Valley Ballet School. He was in the Sun Valley Swords fencing club, sparring at a renaissance fair with a buddy in 2003. He was a voracious reader who would frequently spend hours at a local library.
          “He also bounced between jobs, working two separate stints at a local coffee house. . .”

          What silly conclusions might we can leap to from those facts. . . Let’s ignore any potential harm we might cause. We can always apologize later—but only if someone objects.


          • magus71 said, on October 29, 2011 at 1:18 pm

            Not sure what conclusions you’re leaping to. Bergdahl had a girlfriend; no kids or wife. Yes, family would be eligible for benefits, as I said, he has a right to due process.

            Not sure how high he could be promoted. Every potential promotion would be reviewed; people can retire after 20 years as only E5s. Doubtful he’ll be proimoted much further, if any.

            • dhammett said, on October 29, 2011 at 2:29 pm

              “Not sure what conclusions you’re leaping to”

              Oh, come on now. My exact words were “what silly conclusions we can leap to”. That could just as well have been “stupid conclusions”. And the word was “we”, not “I”.

              As a military man you’re aware of the recent mega-kerfuffle over the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”.
              Is the fact that Bergdahl has/had a girlfriend relevant either in terms of benefit eligibility . . .or in terms of his (dare I mention it?) ‘possible’ sexual orientation. I’m sure there are just a few in the military and outside it who, because of negative bias and a propensity to read and hear only what they want to see and hear may have heard or read the words “ballet” “fencing” “renaissance fair” “voracious reader” “coffee shop” and reached any one of several possible unfounded conclusions. Those people may not be too sorry that Bergdahl was taken, if he was taken.# They may even celebrate his death. I don’t know. It depends. When I saw this story in the today’s Post just
              a bit ago


              I immediately thought of Bergdahl. Why, he could have been the driver of that van! I’ll have to ask Ralph Peters about that the next time I see him. It’s too early to tell; the facts aren’t all in yet. But if Bergdahl WAS the driver his remains should be buried in the Afghan desert. And it’s obviously his parents did something wrong in his upbringing. They deserve no military honors. I might even hire Pastor Fred Phelps and his congregation to protest at their Idaho home. . .Are you with me Ralph?

              # I say taken, because I’ve seen nothing in any recent news confirming that he may have gone AWOL. Could that speculation been a kind of bias on Peters’ part?

            • dhammett said, on October 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm

              “And it’s obviously. . .”
              “And obviously. . .”

            • magus71 said, on October 30, 2011 at 12:50 am

              Well, I suspected you may be getting sexual orientation, but as I said, I know Bergdahl had a girlfriend. However Bradley Manning of wikileaks fame is homosexual.

              As far as Bergdahl going AWOL, the story goes roughly like this: He got done pulling guard and went back to his room. When his squad performed roll call at around 2-4 am, they found he was gone. Apparently he went back to his room, dropped off all his equipment, picked up a knife and a bottle of water and left the base.

              It’s tough to prove anything at this point, but I doubt he got hussled outside the base by a group of Talibs stashed inside the base.

              It’s apparent to me he left. I don’t know why. I’m sure he regrets it at this point.

  9. magus71 said, on October 30, 2011 at 1:19 am

    The reason Mike and Obama endorse the Wall Street Protesters and not the Tea Party:


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm

      Actually, I agree with what seems to have been the original theme of the Tea Party, namely fiscal responsibility. However, the movement seems to have suffered from being transformed into a cover for doing what certain corporations and wealthy individuals want. See, for example, what has happened in Florida-our Tea Party governor has actually stepped up government micromanagement and seems to be mainly focused on doing what he thinks is best for the monied interests.

      • WTP said, on October 31, 2011 at 7:10 pm

        Oh BS. The original theme of the Tea Party was over-taxation. That’s why it’s called the Tea Party. The original colonists did not dump tea into Boston Harbor because the budget was out of balance. They were protesting ridiculous taxation. And don’t think for a minute that I buy your budget balance thing either. You’re only for balancing the budget in so far as raising taxes is concerned. You’re not for cutting spending. The only “spending” you are for cutting is the “spending” that you sophists call what are really tax cuts.

        And you know nothing about Rick Perry either. I’m not a big fan of the guy. But I will say this, he stepped in and fired all of the Workforce Central Florida idiots who were wasting taxpayer money on crap like Superman capes and other nonsense. Some things that he’s micromanaging are things we need to get the government out of entirely. I’d rather he cut more and manage less. As for “monied interests”, I’m one of those monied interests. The state takes my money and spends it on crap that I’m not interested in. Like ivory tower thinkologists who don’t know how to think.

        • WTP said, on November 2, 2011 at 11:56 am

          Doh! Checking back here to see if you had a response, which of course you did not, and realized I said Rick Perry instead of Rick Scott. Same difference I suppose.

  10. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 30, 2011 at 4:50 am

    “Interestingly, this bias seems to occur at neurological level. The brain actually has more neural activity when it is reacting to negative information than when reacting to positive information. Assuming these results apply generally, we are actually hard-wired for negativity.”

    You reveal your own bias here; because you seem to be assuming that neurology is the cause rather than the effect.

    For those who support either the Tea Party or OWS I have some advice: wake up and smell the coffee, because the situation in Washington is far worse than you believe it to be. Google: “ows tea party what we must do”

    Google “osw otpor” and “the revolution business” to learn the truth about OWS and the Arab Spring.

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