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negativity bias

Contributor(s): Trea Lavery

Negativity bias is the tendency of humans to place more significance on negative events than neutral or positive ones. 

Negativity bias is an important concept for marketers to understand, because it plays an important role in customer experience management. When a customer perceives something negative about a product or service, it takes more than one positive event to restore balance because humans will naturally place more emphasis on the negative experience.

Many psychologists believe that negativity bias evolved as a survival technique. Quite simply, those humans who didn't pay enough attention to negative outcomes were less likely to survive. In business, the same concept can be applied to customer service -- those companies who don't pay enough attention to negative customer outcomes are less likely to survive in the marketplace.

Unhappy customers often choose to share their negative impressions with friends and family on social media. It's important for marketers to understand that even when there are nine positive comments in a discussion thread, people will place more value on the tenth comment if it's negative.

The four types of negativity bias

There are four demonstrated forms of negative cognitive bias: negative potency, negative gradients, negativity dominance and negative differentiation.

Potency -- more value is placed on a negative outcome than an equally positive outcome.

Gradients -- negative aspects of an event are amplified as the event comes closer.

Dominance -- the more recent a negative event, the more weight it is given.

Differentiation -- negative events or emotions seem be more complicated and require more cognitive attention than positive ones.

Negative potency gives a negative event or object more subjective weight than an equally positive event or object. For example, criticism is more likely to be remembered than praise.

Negative gradients are closely related to negative potency. This aspect of negativity bias makes negative events seem more negative as they come closer than positive events seem more positive. In other words, although positive and negative events will incite more and more emotion as they approach, this effect will be stronger with negative events than positive ones. For example, an approaching surgery will incite more and more anxiety as the date comes closer; an impending party or celebration will bring more excitement as it comes closer, but the increase in positive emotion will not be as high as the increase in negative emotion.

The next type of negativity bias, negativity dominance, makes the sum of all aspects of a situation seem more negative than positive. For example, if a person who has consistently performed well makes a mistake right before being reviewed for a promotion, they might be passed over for the promotion because the one mistake outweighs all of their previous good work. Conversely, someone who consistently performs poorly would not be awarded a promotion for doing well on one project. This type of negativity bias is especially important in product, software and website design and testing, because if a user finds some aspect of a product they dislike, they will most likely feel negatively toward the product as a whole.

Negative differentiation is a type of negativity bias which causes negative events or emotions to seem more complicated and require more cognitive attention. This is evidenced by the much higher number of words in the English language, and most other languages, describing negative emotions than positive ones.

The biological causes of negativity bias

Both humans and animals have been shown to learn a behavior more quickly when exposed to negative stimuli than positive stimuli, sometimes even after being exposed to an extreme stimulus only once (such as in the case of taste aversions or phobias). This is because of the amygdala, the part of the brain most responsible for anger, fear and anxiety, sends negative information directly to long-term memory to provoke the fight-or-flight response, while positive information takes longer to reach memory.

The negativity bias has been studied extensively. The four different types of negativity bias were first described by researchers Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman in 2001. Negativity bias has also been shown to affect brain activity; more electrical activity shows up on brain scans in response to negative stimuli than positive stimuli.

This was last updated in February 2017

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