In 2019, it’s not hard to imagine the worst will happen. Of course it’ll rain right after my blowout. Of course we’ll elect the wrong official to public office. Of course this mole is actually malignant. Of course my date is definitely a serial killer — or at least the kind of person who claps when the plane lands.
When we have the choice between thinking positively and negatively, many of us will choose the latter. This is often referred to in the psychology world as negative bias. We assume the worst possible outcome will occur, in order to avoid disappointment.
Negativity is hard to measure. That’s not to say scientists haven’t tried. John Cacioppo, PhD, at the University of Chicago, has specifically studied the brain’s “negativity bias.” In the course of his research, he recorded the electrical activity in the brain as he showed people pictures of generally positive things like Ferraris, neutral things like hair dryers, and negative things like "dead cats,” Psychology Today notes. His findings show that the brain has stronger reactions to negative things. Ultimately, this means we might get more emotional about a terrible newscast than a stroke of good luck, like finding a dollar on the ground.
Scott Woodruff — Ph.D., psychologist, director of the anxiety and obsessive compulsive treatment program at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy — notes that negative thinking is also often associated with depression.
He says that negativity is correlated with depression rates, which have been on the rise in America, especially among teens, according to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. With all that said, Woodruff notes that there’s a difference between depression and regular old pessimism. He notes that the thing that makes the negativity more problematic though, is when it prevents someone from going out and doing things they enjoy.
People who are suffering from the common condition depression tend to isolate themselves and not be as active. These symptoms can be associated with negativity. For example, you’re less likely to travel, if you assume you’ll be late and miss the plane. You’re less likely to go to the birthday party, if you think you’ll have a terrible time. You’re not going to ask your crush out, if you believe they’ll shut you down.
“If I’m always expecting the worst, I’m far less likely to act,” Woodruff says. “We’re attempting to ‘manage regret,’ or the possibility of it. And we’re thinking: Not doing anything at all is the best way to minimize failure or regret… We're organizing our life around avoiding losses.”
This tactic and your own negativity could be holding you back. “It’s usually a bad sign if it’s a consistent pattern in your life,” Woodruff says. “While you might think negativity is good because it prepares you for the worst, that’s a fallacy. The marginal benefits of preparing for the worst are outweighed by the negatives.” These include losing opportunities — in love and business — and receiving less positive reinforcement, Woodruff says.
If you're identifying hard with this, Woodruff says there are things you can do to combat your doom and gloom attitude. Exposure is one. If you notice you’re not taking up golf because you think you’ll be bad at it, do it anyway. Send your mentor the complementary yet suck-up-y email. Send the text. Even if it’s uncomfortable.
With all that said, sometimes negative thoughts are just good intuition. Sometimes DMing your ex to see if he'll give you his Adderall prescription really is a bad idea. If you’re not sure if your thinking is realistic, it can help to write down your expectations before you put yourself in a situation that you think could go poorly, Woodruff says. Then go do the thing you’re worried about doing, and see if reality lived up to be the catastrophic nightmare you thought it would be. This will help you gauge whether your expectations are distorted.
We’ve talked about how being negative can be bad for your mental health — but it’s also not necessarily great to be too "glass-half-full," either. “I’m not a proponent of perpetual positive thinking either,” Woodruff says. “It can lead to downfalls. These people may think something is seriously wrong with them if they have a negative thought, even though everyone has those emotions. What I’m a proponent of is realistic, unbiased thinking.”