Friday, 14 February 2014

negativity bias : no such thing

Negativity Bias is a term that sometimes crops up in creative circles. Negativity bias is sometimes cited as the reason clever people stomp on new thinking. It’s a term that we think needs to be treated with caution as it’s all too easy to over simplify things and allow good science to become poor science and then turn into even worse advice. The heart of the argument is thus: our capacity to weigh negative stimulus more heavily than positive most likely evolved for good reasons —to keep us out of harm's way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at avoiding dangers. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it. Those caveman that stepped outside the cave when they saw a sabre tooth tiger rarely came back. We thus treat new thinking in the same way; with huge caution and we quickly crush exploratory ideas as threats;  it’s un avoidable.
Genius says ‘rubbish!’
In today’s world we think this is bunk. It’s an excuse NOT to do things and ignores that we live in the 21st century. Excuses for our poor behaviour can’t be attributed to dodging danger as caveman.
Consider the rebuttals from our clients…
1.        Our minds are not fixed as cavemen. Seriously? Is this a solid argument? The human species evolved over millions of years and latterly in the tens of thousands we’ve accelerated our development amongst socio and contextual settings of our own design. With the shift of our ancestors from roaming hunters in isolation, that feared prey, we grew to agricultural masters of our environment, grew into large communities, extracted energy from the land and fended off sabre tooth nasties in groups using rocks, sticks and a bit of yelling. We now find ourselves at the top of the energy and food chain. We evolved languages in parallel to the discovery, trade, storage and harvesting of grains and developed metaphysical cognition that manifested in religions, rituals and worships as a result of such farming practises.
The human species has not got a caveman brain.
We do not get hijacked by fear when new ideas are presented in brainstorms and meetings at work.
We do not fear new thinking.
If it were the case, then nothing around us that we’ve created would exist now would it. Despite all the intellectual rock throwing, the mavericks still get through. And despite all the shitty process and procedure in business that we consultant agency types hate, work still carries on. Coke sells itself, interest rates fluctuate, mums buy soap powder & egg free cake mix and marketing managers make PowerPoints.  Same today. Same tomorrow.
2.       Proposing that we humans have a negative bias as default can’t be the case when citing the opportunities children see over adults. There is no shortage of opportunity in a primary school classroom and no sense of wonder when we’re 5. Negativity bias is simply the register of intensity that negative things have over positive. We remember the shitty stuff more so than the good. But we can also remember the good. Our perception of time and positive emotion is warped. Look up the studies for yourself. It’s important to invest in the positive to counter act the visceral experiences of the negative, but it’s all fluctuated and all behaviour, after all is learned. We don’t crush ideas and new thinking in business because we’re negative, we crush ideas in business because we have learned to do so by copying others. Mostly our boss, his boss and the person we’d most like to be liked by in the room. “I agree with what Simon says”…( a phrase commonly heard at Canary Wharf).

3.       Finally we don’t like negativity bias as a concept as in the world of instructional design, LTROD and innovation, it’s a “gotcha”. For example “hey there’s no such things as negativity bias, that’s’ bunk”, “see, you‘re being negative, so we’re right and thus proved our point”. And so on. You can’t defend an argument by using the argument in and of itself as your proof point. Brilliantly put into humour by Douglas Adams when a talking fish explains to God that as he, the talking fish exists, is evidence and proof that a divine creator exists; and of course with proof, there is no need for faith and without faith God can’t exist and so God disappears into a cloud of logic…
Smart. If a little too clever.
The point is it’s ‘bad’ to explain to clients who stamp on ideas that they are negative and their actions will perpetuate their behaviour inevitably to the vice.

So this leads where?

Yes, subconscious forces come into play. Edward Bernays famously took the powdered egg out of cake mix in the 50’s to stop mums feeling guilty about baking without making an effort (it still stands to this day)  and lipsticks sell in tandem with the cycles of the moon. But we’re not negative to new thinking because we once got eaten by tigers as cavemen.


We stomp on ideas because were smart, clever people with high standards that are unique and special to ourselves. People that don’t match the same pattern as us are immediately attributed with labels by association. It’s how our mind works. It does so automatically, subconsciously and at speed. It takes seconds for us to work out whether new thinking is useful or not useful to us. Does it fit our path for the day? will it help my meeting? Will this half-baked idea actually solve my issue or get in the way of my next promotion? Do I want to be associated with chaos or a clear plan my boss wants…


We live in a built environment that pampers our immediate and long term needs and we’ve a growing distance between that around us and an appreciation of the efforts, magic, skill and energy it took to create such. We need to remind ourselves that new thinking created it.


Those reading this far done the article may have already found fault with what’s written. You may have thought “not so, sonny” (or different words but same sentiment). You’ve done so not because you’re bias to the negative, you’ve done so as our map, doesn’t fit your map of the same territory. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, we’d rather we have some adversarial discussions and it all helps challenge one perspective against another. It’s important however to let go the ‘right’ over ‘wrong’ argument as all that creative energy is put on proving one point of view over another.


The how will argue for itself.


Those that succeed in pushing through innovative thinking and creative process in business need not worry about our innate ability to create the ‘new’. We can do that. What leaders and sponsors of new programmes can do is grow better awareness of is the systems, structures and processes that recognise, isolate and correct the behaviours that  make for better idea generation and better creative culture.

Making our excuses and blaming our ancestors won’t get you far.

Taking initiative and embracing opportunity with get us much further.

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