Negativity Bias in Feedback Relationships

Home » Feedback Tips Weekly » Negativity Bias in Feedback Relationships

Whether you are giving feedback or receiving feedback, there’s a good chance you may be diminishing your effectiveness by bringing negativity bias into the relationship. Let’s discuss what negativity bias is, how it can impact our feedback relationships, and how we can create mental habits that make us more effective.

What is negativity bias?

Negativity bias is “the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information” (Vaish, Grossmann, & Woodward, 2008, Psychological Bulletin). You might also see this as our tendency to more easily remember and more often dwell on the negative, even if positive experiences are far more plentiful. Negativity bias is often referred to as a “biologically hardwired” part of the human experience, an evolutionary mechanism that served an essential role in protecting us, for example, from saber-toothed predators, but that can more often cause us problems in the world we live in now.

A colorful painting of a desert shows a women in a suit trying to run away from a large tiger.
In today’s world of work, our hardwired negativity bias can cause unnecessary stress and decrease our performance.

Negativity bias when giving feedback

As a feedback giver, negativity bias may cause you to focus more often and dwell on what you see as the perceived weaknesses of your colleague. This could lead to you underutilizing positive feedback and overutilizing negative feedback. Like all cognitive biases, negativity bias is strong and can exhibit itself in this way even if you know better; that is, even if you know that much of the feedback literature suggests positive feedback can play a more important role in improving performance.

Negativity bias when receiving feedback

As a feedback receiver, negativity bias may cause you to:

  1. Treat yourself harshly or otherwise get caught in a spiral of unhelpful negative thinking based on the feedback you received. You may have received tremendously positive feedback overall, but you can’t get the single piece of negative feedback you received out of your mind.
  2. Dismiss even great feedback entirely because your negativity bias has helped shape a strong aversion to the feedback giver. Remember, as we covered in our online feedback course, great feedback can come from those we may dislike or not respect.

Working with negative feedback

Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, offers a range of mindfulness-based practices to:

  1. Develop awareness of our negativity bias
  2. Form new mental habits that can change how our brain operates

Here is Dr. Hanson speaking about negativity bias:

The practices take time, but, in my experience, they can dramatically improve your mental health and how you show up in feedback communications. Your negativity bias may always remain, but you will improve your awareness of it and develop strategies to better control its impact on your life.

Through mindfulness-based practices, we can be in better control of our negativity bias.

A great way to get started will be to join Rick’s free Wednesday night meditation classes. I might see you there!


Before you go…