The researcher John Cacioppo showed volunteers
positive pictures and negative pictures while he recorded the
electrical activity of their brains. The positive pictures were
designed to give the volunteers pleasant feelings pictures
of a Ferrari or a pizza, for example. The negative pictures produced
unpleasant feelings, like a mutilated face or a dead cat.
Cacioppo found that the volunteers' brains
had more electrical activity when they looked at negative pictures.
Their brains reacted more strongly to negative pictures than
to positive or neutral ones.
Several different kinds of studies have
shown the same thing. In other words, your brain reacts more
intensely to negative than positive events. This probably doesn't
surprise you, although you might never have considered the implications
of it. Dealing with dangerous, scary, threatening information
is fundamental. It's about survival. Life or death. It doesn't
get much more fundamental than that.
Researchers at the University of Essex
in England found that people who were even mildly anxious were
more fixated by threatening images than they were by other images.
The threatening images captured their attention more quickly
and they had a harder time taking their attention away from it.
By fixating more strongly on threatening
images, a person can conduct more "detailed cognitive processing
of potential threats in their environment," as the lead
researcher, Elaine Fox put it. That seems like a useful survival
Other more general studies on stress show
something similar. Stress gives everyone a strong tendency to
fixate on unpleasant thoughts and threatening information.
Our minds naturally and quite spontaneously
tend to fixate on the negative and overlook the positive
under normal circumstance, and especially under stress.
CAUGHT BY THE NEGATIVE
Coming from a completely different angle,
the researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered something along
the same lines. He found that when your mind isn't engaged in
anything in particular, it tends to drift randomly. Thoughts
of all kinds stream through an idle mind.
But eventually, in its random meandering,
the mind will think of something negative, and then what happens?
Your mind stops meandering and sticks on
the negative thought because negative thoughts fixate attention
with more stickiness than positive or neutral thoughts. We get
caught in the worried or angry thought, and it doesn't pass by
like a neutral thought might. We naturally, and even against
our will, give threatening information extra attention.
There's more. Because of the way our brains
are constructed, we make certain kinds of mistakes. For example,
human brains like yours and mine tend to overgeneralize and see
the world in black-or-white, all-or-nothing terms. And unless
we have trained ourselves to avoid it, we also have a tendency
to draw conclusions too quickly. These are naturally-occurring
mistakes. They are the kind of errors every brain is prone to
In a way, these "mistakes" are
simply the side-effects of a well-functioning, incredibly capable
brain. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Researchers at Duke University Medical
Center hooked people up to a high-resolution functional MRI machine
(to track the blood flow in the brain) and flashed pictures in
front of them. The pictures were of either a square or a circle.
They were asked to push a button in their right hand when they
saw the square, and push the button in their left hand for the
The squares and circles were presented
in a random order, but of course short patterns would sometimes
emerge a string of all squares, for example, or alternation
between a square and a circle for several cycles.
Their brains reacted when one of these
short patterns ended. Their brains automatically detected and
generalized patterns, and very quickly. They were given no reward
for detecting patterns. They were not asked to detect patterns.
In fact, they were told the pictures would be flashed randomly.
Yet still, without any effort on their part, their brains automatically
saw patterns in the random events and generalized began
to expect what the next picture would be. In previous similar
studies testing their reaction time, the volunteers had a slower
reaction time when an expected pattern was broken, revealing
that they were automatically detecting patterns.
Your brain is predisposed to generalize.
It automatically tries to see patterns. And for the most part,
our ability to generalize is a good thing. Many moons ago, Ignaz
Semmelweis noticed that when a doctor performed a dissection
and then assisted in a birth, the women had a tendency to get
childbed fever. He was able to detect a pattern and make a generalization.
His ability to generalize led to the practice of using antiseptics
and sterilization, saving millions of unnecessary deaths over
Charles Darwin saw a pattern that governs
the evolution of all life on earth. Quite a generalization! From
that single generalization, new understandings about diseases
were discovered that greatly improved the effectiveness of doctors.
In fact, whole new sciences have issued from that single generalization.
What I'm trying to say is: The mistakes
our brains tend to make (like overgeneralizing) are the inevitable
secondary results of our great intelligence.
Your ability to recognize a face comes
from your brain's ability to complete a pattern with minimal
clues. It has been exceedingly challenging to create computers
that can do it, and they still aren't as good at it as you are
on a bad day without even trying. Your brain recognizes faces
without any effort on your part. Your brain is so good at completing
a pattern that, even in dim light even if you can only
see half of the face you recognize immediately who it
But this amazing ability also sometimes
causes us to see patterns that don't really exist. We see a man
in the moon. We see a horse in the clouds. We see the big dipper,
the little dipper, Orion's belt. Our brains can take the most
scant clues and see a pattern, without us making even the smallest
effort to do so.
But especially given our brains' bias toward
negativity, we also see patterns that create pessimism, cynicism,
and defeatism patterns our brains have created out of
minimal clues patterns that don't actually exist.
I used to work with a woman who had two
failed marriages and concluded, "All men are pigs."
From only two examples, she created a generalization that included
three billion men! Her cynicism, her unwillingness to allow any
men to get close to her, was the side-effect of two common mistakes
our brains tend to make: 1) the brain's amazing ability to see
a pattern with minimal clues, and 2) our brain's tendency to
look for evidence that confirms an already-existing conclusion.
Once you have concluded something, you
have a strong tendency to notice evidence that supports your
conclusion and to explain away or ignore information that invalidates
your conclusion, not only in your immediate perception, which
is bad enough, but also in your memory.
In an experiment, for example, volunteers
were asked to read a story about a woman. Let's call her Clare.
Two days later, half the volunteers were asked to recall the
story and decide how suited Clare was for a career as a real-estate
agent. The other half were asked to rate her suitability for
a job as a librarian. They were all asked to remember some examples
of Clare's introversion and extroversion.
The volunteers looking at her ability as
a real estate agent remembered more examples of Clare's extroversion.
Those assessing her ability as a librarian
recalled more instances of Clare's introversion.
The volunteers were not asked to bias their
data. They had no stake in the matter. They weren't rewarded
for answering one way or another. But that's what human brains
do. Your brain naturally and automatically looks at the world
and your own memory as if it is trying to confirm whatever conclusions
you've already drawn.
This is not to say you are the helpless
victim of your brain's natural functioning. You can do something
about it. But here we're looking at how the virus of negativity
can enter the system. We're asking the question: "At what
points are we vulnerable to infection?" How do otherwise
healthy, reasonable people become pessimistic, cynical, and defeatist?
One way is through the natural mistakes human brains are prone
to make, combined with the brain's negative bias.
Another mistake our brains make is jumping
to conclusions too quickly. You can see how this makes the other
mistakes all the worse. You might see a pattern that doesn't
really exist, overgeneralize about it, and form a conclusion
so fast you don't even know you're doing it. Then hold onto and
even defend your conclusion when you get evidence against it.
I'm sure you don't do that often, or at
least not as often as other people you know. Why? Because you
have trained yourself (or have been trained) to deliberately
prevent yourself from doing what your brain does naturally. But
even so, it is very likely that you still make those mistakes,
no matter how careful you are. Read the following examples of
experts in their field making these mistakes.
Before trains could go very fast, experts
in Germany predicted that if trains went faster than 24 miles
per hour, people would get severe nosebleeds. Experts in the
United States predicted people would go insane when they saw
a train for the first time. The speed and the noise would be
just too much for people to handle.
Many experts in the ship-building business
were quite sure that a ship made out of iron couldn't possibly
In 1943, the chairman of IBM said "I
think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
In 1929, Irving Fisher, an Economics professor
at Yale, said, "Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently
high plateau." Then the Great Depression hit.
In 1872, Pierre Pachet, professor of physiology
at Toulouse, said, "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous
In 1981, Bill Gates said, "640k ought
to be enough for anybody."
There is no end to examples like these.
I've got a file full of them. These experts have perfectly normal
human brains, maybe even better brains than average, and yet
they still jump to conclusions in their own field of expertise.
Their brains did it, and so does yours
Let's recap. Human brains react more strongly
to negative than positive information. They make certain kinds
of mistakes in the way they process information mistakes
like overgeneralizing, seeing things too black-or-white, a tendency
to confirm conclusions they have already formed, and they jump
to conclusions quickly and easily, even if they don't yet know
enough to decide.
And because the brain is already biased
toward the negative, those cognitive mistakes tend to be made
in the direction of pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism.
A form of therapy has sprung up to deal
directly with this phenomenon, called cognitive therapy. A cognitive
therapist tries to root out the mistakes clients make in their
thinking. Those mistakes are causing or sustaining the clients'
depression or anxiety. The therapy is simple, straightforward,
and short term, and yet it has proven to be surprisingly effective.
Cognitive therapy is the most thoroughly researched form of therapy
and when compared with other forms of therapy, it is superior,
both from independent evaluations and the clients' own assessments.
As simple and straightforward as it is, it is the most effective
of all therapies.
If you were a client, the most important
thing a cognitive therapist would do for you is undermine your
confidence in your mistaken conclusions. Overconfidence in our
own conclusions is one of the worst mistakes we naturally make.
We have a natural propensity built into the brain
to draw conclusions with insufficient evidence and to hold those
conclusions with excessive confidence. And to defend those conclusions
with unjustified ardor.
A TASTE OF THE TILL
Here's a good example of holding conclusions
with too much certainty. When the founder of the National Cash
Register company, now known as NCR, John Patterson, first started
his company, almost no stores used cash registers. But most store
owners had a pilfering problem. In those days a "taste of
the till" was an accepted part of the wages for a clerk
or bartender, much like waiters' tips are today. With no way
to keep tabs on what was actually being sold, it was easy for
an employee to pocket some of the money without anyone knowing.
One of the biggest benefits Patterson pitched
the one that he thought would be the reason every store
owner would jump at the opportunity was that it could
eliminate pilfering. The cash registers would not open until
something was rung up, and everything rung up was printed on
a little spool of paper inside the machine. The only one with
a key to get into that spool was the owner. Viola! The owner
could prevent employees from stealing the profits.
But Patterson ran into a deep-seated pessimism.
Owners were quite sure a machine could never stop what they perceived
to be human nature. Petty theft was accepted as inevitable.
It was a classic case of defeatism, and
very hard for Patterson's salespeople to overcome. The owners
had concluded "that's just the way people are," and
they held onto their conclusion with far too much confidence.
The conclusion was wrong, as many (if not
most) pessimistic conclusions are. When the machines were put
into service, they did actually cut down on pilfering and more
than paid for themselves in savings.
This kind of overconfidence is nothing
new. It's a common feature of history. You could almost write
history by telling the story of beliefs that people through the
ages have held with excessive confidence only to have them proven
wrong. The earth is flat. The sun revolves around the earth.
A man will never walk on the moon.
People throughout history experts,
people who should know better have made statements with
certainty when they really weren't certain at all. They felt
certain, but that feeling has nothing to do with correctness.
A common phrase in use in the 1930s and
40s was "When the kid next door walks on the moon."
It used to be a phrase people used when they meant to say, "It'll
never happen." This is an example of widespread defeatism
a certainty about a pessimistic conclusion that wasn't
A story circulated around the internet
a few years ago about Neil Armstrong. Maybe you've read it. The
story goes that when Armstrong first stepped on the moon and
said, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,"
he had made some other remarks, including, "Good luck, Mr.
Nobody knew who Armstrong was referring
to, and when anyone ever asked him, he just smiled. Twenty-six
years later, after giving a speech, someone brought it up again
and Armstrong said, "Well, Mr. Gorsky has passed away, so
I guess it's okay to answer that question. When I was a kid,
I was playing baseball in my backyard and when I chased a ball
to a place under my neighbors' window, I overheard Mrs. Gorsky
shouting at Mr. Gorsky, 'Oral sex? You want oral sex!? You'll
get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!'"
The story isn't true, but it is believable
because anyone growing up in the forties knows that was a common
expression. A man walk on the moon? Yeah, right. It'll never
happen. And everyone knew it would never happen. They had concluded
it with excessive confidence.
When people do that with something petty,
it's not a big deal. But when you do it about your ambitions,
it can cost you quite a bit.
Of course, I'm not going to leave you hanging.
There is something you can do about your brain's natural negative
bias. You probably do some of them already. We'll get to that
a little later.
But a pessimist, even if he found out what
he could do, might automatically think, "It'll take too
much work," or "That's just the human condition,"
or "I'll never be able to change it. I'm not persistent
enough. I have no will power. Etc." All those thoughts will
stop a pessimist from trying to change, and of course they are
all more of the same: Pessimistic conclusions exclaimed with
far too much certainty.
The tendency to draw negative conclusions
and then see the world through those conclusions can often create
self-fulfilling prophesies. Pessimistic, cynical, and defeatist
conclusions can make themselves come true.
For example, a waiter gets three lousy
tips in a row and thinks, "All my customers tonight are
bad tippers." Even three bad tippers in a row is statistically
not unusual in a random sample, but the waiter's brain sees a
pattern and overgeneralizes and then makes a conclusion and is
completely convinced of it.
So what does he do? He gives up the fight.
He becomes pessimistic, defeated, cynical, at least for the rest
of the night. He doesn't try to give good service because it
doesn't matter. He's going to get a lousy tip no matter what
he does. Why try?
And sure enough, people are not at all
impressed with his half-hearted service and tip him badly. His
own negative conclusion has become a reality, brought into being
by his own negative conclusion.
There is an old joke that reveals an understanding
of this principle. One day a man gets a flat tire on a remote
road and discovers he doesn't have a jack. He figures they might
have one at a farmhouse he sees up the road, so he starts walking
As he walks, he starts thinking to himself,
and his ruminations are biased to the negative. "They'll
probably be suspicious of a stranger out here in the middle of
nowhere, and won't answer the door. Then I'll have to walk another
mile to get to the next place and they won't have a jack. When
I eventually find someone who answers the door and has a jack,
they'll make me leave my wallet or something so I don't run off
with their jack. What's the matter with these people? Can't they
help their fellow man without running him through hoops or thinking
the worst of him?!"
His ruminations build up into an indignant
anger by the time he reaches the first house. A woman answers
the door and says, "Can I help you?"
He yells, "I wouldn't take your help
if you begged me! And you can keep your stupid jack!"
The brain has a natural negative bias combined
with a built-in tendency to jump to negative conclusions quickly
and feel certain about them. This sometimes produces self-fulfilling
prophesies. This is how the brain displays a negative bias. That
is one way pessimism can worm its way into your mind. Read
about the others here.
Click here for a