It's inevitable that at some point we will all be the targets of insults, admonishments, or negative feedback. We may be advised to “shake it off” but that’s not so easy. We tend to remember criticism more than we recall praise — due to a phenomenon called the “negativity bias.” This universal tendency for negative emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones is evolutionary, in that it causes us to pay special attention to anything that might be a threat or put us in danger.
According to Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland and co-author of The Power of Bad: And How to Overcome It, "Our ancestors who had that [negative] bias were more likely to survive.” However this tendency does not serve us very well on a daily basis. Baumeister believes that until we learn how to override the disproportionate impact of the negative, it distorts our view of the world.
Of course, the impact of being criticized varies from person to person. But receiving and internalizing negative comments can increase stress, anxiety, frustration and worry, says Lucia Macchia, a behavioral scientist and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. "Dealing with these negative emotions has a great impact on our body as they can even create and exacerbate physical pain," she adds.
The good news: Scores of studies have shown that people tend to look on the bright side as they become older. Scientists refer to this effect as the "positivity bias" and they think we start to remember positive details more than negative information from middle age. Baumeister believes this is because we need to learn from failures and criticism in our younger years, but that need diminishes as we age.
To reduce our negativity bias sooner, it helps to remember that our genetic programming could be at the root of our ruminating about criticism. Simply recognizing this negativity effect can help us override undesirable responses — and it can also be useful to remember that some criticism says more about the giver than the receiver.
Have you ever given more credence to a criticism than it probably warranted? To join the conversation, click "comments" above. We would really like to hear about your experiences.
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