Negative Bias

Nihal Balaji had asked me to write a post on mental health and I had promised that I would. So here is me fulfilling that promise to you Nihal.

Humans have been kept alive as a specie in treacherous jungles of past because our minds has a negative bias. We tend to pick up on negative news fast, react stronger and its effect last longer. That is: we are naturally endowed with reacting mildly to positive things than to comparative negative ones.

In evolutionary time, this meant reacting quicker and stronger to a snake in our way then to a fruit lying on our path. In modern day this translates to getting hurt more in losing X amount of money than in gaining the same amount. In martial discords thus it takes 5 compliments to counter 1 criticism. In a restorative justice system it takes saving of 25 lives to atone for one murder.

These conservative leanings though great for survival are not good for thriving, More often than not our negative bias turns rogue and leads us to paint extremely negative pictures of everything. Renowned Psychologist, Aaron Beck, cites this belief troika as guiding philosophy of people who are depressed : “ I am no good”, “My world is bleak” and the “Future is no good”.

Negative bias turning into negative beliefs and negative world view seriously impairs our mental health.

Now both east and west have come up with techniques of countering this natural tendency of our mind to run amuk with negative news, situations and beliefs.

East’s solution is simple. Meditation. Sit down, relax and observe your mind in action. Soon you will be able to spot and correct its leanings.

West’s solution is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) or Medication (Prozac, etc).

CBT tells us that we end up in dysfunctional states because of our thinking styles which is full of errors. It labels these thinking errors and gives us techniques on handling the cognitive distortions that result as a consequence. In fact out of ten thinking errors that CBT identifies five.are directly related to complicating and magnifying our inherent negative bias. These five distorted thinking habits that we indulge in are:

Discounting the positive: Owing to our confirmation bias(looking for information that justifies our current beliefs) we tend to discount positive things entirely.

Generalization: One negative event is interpreted to mean a negative rule: One interview rejection means you are not hireable, one date decline means you are not good as a mate.

Selective Filtering: Getting stuck on one negative thing that happened out of total of 100 things. One negative comment makes you obsess over it and makes you forget 23 other compliments you received.

Jumping to Conclusions: Without sufficient evidence one indulges in these two negative activities: 1) Fortune telling, predict negative outcomes for actions 2) Mind reading: Making negative judgments about what others are thinking.

Binocular Trick: Magnifying problems and lacks as well as minimizing the good points.

These five thinking distortions that we indulge in, makes us fearful, anxious and in extreme cases, depressed. Knowing them and catching our mind indulging in them, is the way to counter them.

This is just a sampler for CBT. Those keen on pursing this further can consult the seminal book by David Buns “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” or stay tuned to my posts for more updates.

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