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The Power of Negativity Bias

Nov. 21, 2013
The fact that we pay more attention to--and give more weight to--bad news is important for overcoming resistance to change.

Some years back, I got a case of the flu. Not the sniffles-and-vague-feeling-of-nausea kind but the stop-talking-so-loudly-because-you’re-making-my-hair-hurt kind. And unfortunately, just before I began feeling ill, I ate a plate of chicken chow mein.

You can probably guess what happened--or, rather, hasn’t happened--in the years since.

An evolutionary biologist might tell me my current aversion to a former favorite is an adaptive protective mechanism, a simple if-then association evolved to prevent me from eating anything that might be a cause of subsequent illness. If I’m sick and have just eaten chicken chow mein, it’d be best to become nauseated just thinking about the stuff in the future, even if it wasn’t the real reason I became ill. Apparently, Nature’s philosophy is: Better safe than sorry. After all, there are plenty of other things to eat, like General Tso’s chicken. For now, at least.

A Bias for Bad News

Psychologists would call this sort of better-safe-than-sorry behavior a negativity bias. Simply put, this kind of thinking gives preference to avoiding loss over achieving gain. It’s why we steer clear of foods that might have made us sick, even if they might not have. It’s why the evening news is filled with murder and mayhem. It’s why you remember the one bad thing someone said about you decades ago and ignore all the good things that same person has said about you in the decades since.

The fact that we pay more attention to--and give more weight to--bad news is important for overcoming resistance to change. Ordinarily, I focus my advice on successfully managing change on the positive. But human nature being what it is, the negative has a place, too.

Overcoming Change Resistance with a Little Help from Human Nature

In practical terms, this means that we not only need to communicate the benefits of a proposed change, but also the consequences of not changing. And we need to make this communication personal, focusing on both positive and negative impacts on things our employees care deeply about, such as job security, compensation, and so on.

Does this mean we need to pile on the negative? No. Because of our built-in negativity bias, people’s ears will swivel at even a passing mention of potential adverse consequences. So, don’t dwell on it, but don’t neglect it, either.

It’s a hard truth, this human bias for bad news. But consider this: When our bodies and minds make the very idea of eating chicken chow mein repulsive, it’s not out of spite, but to protect us. Same thing when it comes to letting employees know the negative outcomes of failing to change.

Now, this sort of behavior can become maladaptive, especially when it paralyzes us, which it can do when the negative/positive input ratio exceeds, say, 1:10. But operating without a clear idea of the bad things that can happen when change doesn’t is maladaptive, too. So, the next time you communicate the need to change, by all means lay on the positive talk. And lay it on thick. But also mention the negative consequences, just enough to help your employees tap into their hard-wired motivation to avoid those consequences and make successful, positive change a reality.

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