Fight that negative bias!

Never before has it been so tempting to wallow in negativity and pessimism. Beware! It’s an attitude that holds dangers for your business, career, marriage and friendships, says Peter Hughes.

Fight that negative bias!
Photo: FW Archive
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Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect? It’s that psychological phenomenon where your expectation of a person actually affects the way that person performs.

For example, if a teacher expects high performance from a pupil, that pupil will tend to perform well. Conversely, if the teacher expects poor performance, the pupil will tend to perform badly.

Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson demonstrated this outcome in a famous 1968 study involving disguised IQ tests. The same phenomenon manifests itself in other ways.

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The attitude of those around you, and the nature and tone of their interaction with you, will affect your personal attitude and outlook. If you’re constantly exposed to negative, pessimistic and incessant moaners, you’ll become like them.

By contrast, if you spend your time in the company of positive, optimistic and cheerful people, their attitude will rub off on you, and you’ll end up like them!

Right now, we have a situation around the world the like of which we have never had to deal with before. I don’t need to spell out the dire effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; we are all fully aware of these. But the result is that we now have a fertile breeding
ground for negativity and pessimism.

Let’s face facts. Our individual power to affect the path of COVID-19 is zero. All we can really do is take care of our families, our employees and ourselves as best as we can.

Equally, our individual capacity to change the policies and incompetence of the South African government in the short term is close to zero.

In contrast, we have 100% control over our state of mind, our attitude, and our response to these challenges.

Self-fulfilling prophecy
Rosenthal and Jacobson also showed that whatever position we adopt in life tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe there are no opportunities, that the competition is too tough and that we won’t make a go of it, it’s likely to come true.

Pessimism and defeatism drain us of life; they suck the energy and motivation out of us and can impair our health, ruin our friendships and marriages, and destroy our ability.

Now, more than at any other time in our lives, we have to fight to remain positive and optimistic. But it’s hard!

Our fight against negativity begins by understanding why we humans gravitate so easily to pessimism: it’s the well-recognised negativity bias at work. Our brains are more receptive to the negative than the positive. Bad news headlines capture our attention, and we see patterns in random events and jump to unjustified conclusions.

Fight the bias
Here are some ideas on how to fight the negativity bias:

  • Change your news diet! Before giving time to any articles or news coverage headlining bad news, stop and ask yourself: “Is it absolutely necessary that I know about this?” If not, skip it!
  • Say goodbye to doomsayers. Cut off those habitual moaners and pessimists who never see any good in anyone or any situation. This may be difficult, but in the most courteous way possible, avoid them. Make a list of the people you’ll do your best to avoid in the future. Do it now.
  • Cultivate positive people. Seek them out, and don’t leave your interaction with them to chance; identify them and schedule regular contact with them. One way of meeting positive people outside of your circle is to volunteer for a community task. It’s a great way to surround yourself with happier attitudes.

• Set limits for whingers. There will obviously be negative people you cannot escape; your co-workers or your boss, for example. Let them know gently at first, and firmly later if necessary, that you would prefer to be left out of negative conversations. Set limits for chronic complainers by asking how they intend fixing the problem; it will
invariably stop them in their tracks.

• Guard your precious time. Don’t allow negative people to steal your time and energy. They can monopolise your time, even when you’re not with them. In short, limit the amount of time you spend talking about, thinking about, and worrying about unpleasant people.

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.

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