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Stop Sounding So Negative! How to Recognize Your Negativity Bias and Tell A More Positive Story Your inner storyteller can be turned to the light.

By Kindra Hall Edited by Jason Feifer

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

One frigid November evening in 2020, I was standing on the city sidewalk with a network camera crew waiting to film my part of a national news clip that would include my thoughts on the closing of New York City public schools during the coronavirus pandemic. We picked the spot, they got the lighting set, mic'd me up, and then the crew and I made small talk until it was showtime.

We had our pick of newsworthy things to talk about, but at some point, it occurred to me that we were focused on the bad ones. Why were we regurgitating the pandemic challenges and not talking about the increasing good vaccine news? Why the economic problems and not the seasonal spike in retail sales?

That focus became the focus of our conversation. "Why," I wondered aloud, "do we always talk about the bad stories? Even in casual conversation? I mean, this is the first time we've met. Why don't I tell you about the great thing that happened to a friend of mine this morning or the breakthrough I had at work?"

The crew member sighed. "You know, we talk about this every morning in our newsroom meeting — what stories are we going to share today? And while there are exciting things happening, ultimately the scary stories are what people want to hear."

There was conflict in his voice. As if a part of him believed that people needed more hope, not fear. But the news is business. And the bad stories, the scary stories — they pay the bills. They are what people tune in for. Like moths to the bad-news flame, the scary headline is the one we click on. Move over sex; you may sell, but fear sells more.

While your stories won't necessarily make the news, this obsession with the negative lives within each of us. If you have ever posted something on social media — perhaps something even just a little vulnerable — 99 percent of the comments were almost certainly positive, cheering you on, validating and celebrating you. And then there was one. That one person who said something mean or put you down. Which of those comments can you recite word for word? My guess is only one of them — the bad one.

I once posted an emotional, endearing story on Instagram. I don't remember what the story was exactly, but I do remember a lot of people offered words of support and gratitude. And then there was one woman who said, "How dare you not post about Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day. How dare you erase him from the pages of history." Admittedly, it stands out because it truly was a new level of crazy, but why on earth do I remember that and not any of the others?

It turns out that being just a little negative helped us survive. The more tuned into danger and risk your ancestors were, the more likely they were to live longer. Assuming a noise in the brush was a bear, not a cool breeze, was a survival advantage.

The result is that we have what scientists call a negativity bias. Research shows we tend to remember traumatic incidents better and that we think more frequently about negative things. We also learn more from negative experiences and tend to make decisions based more on negative information than positive. This tendency influences our stories, too, giving them a negative slant.

You can see this bias at work to this day in the news media — regardless of how many great things are happening, it's one negative story after another and maybe a mention of something good in the final seconds of airtime.

There are two takeaways here. The first is that you don't have to feel bad for your collection of negative stories and your tendency to beat yourself up or fear the worst. Not only is it normal, but your negative bias is what helped your long line of ancestors survive long enough to produce you. If the early cave-person versions of you had been die-hard optimists, you wouldn't be here!

The second takeaway is awareness. It's important to be aware that while your stories are creating your life, those stories tend to be fearful. Cautious. Overly critical. As a result, your unconscious storyteller is leading you to stay safe in a world where physical safety isn't your primary concern. Which explains why the bricks we've been laying, the stories we've been telling ourselves, aren't leading us any closer to the Emerald City. They're just leading us in circles, keeping us feeling safe, but stuck in places that, though they may not be excellent, at least they are familiar.

The Pygmalion effect researchers knew this. In their famous experiment, psychologist Robert Rosenthal and educator Lenore Jacobson singled out random students as intellectual "growth spurters" — and found that their high expectations drove the students to perform better. They could have done the opposite, randomly identifying the intellectual "losers," but fortunately, they knew better. Even before testing their theory on kids, a version of the test had been done on rats, showing how the expectations of scientists could lead their rats to perform differently. They knew that, applied to kids, a negative label would be unethical and harmful.

But the opposite of the Pygmalion effect exists, nonetheless. It's called the golem effect, and it describes the polar opposite — how low expectations lead to poorer results. When we let our negative stories take the lead, we're allowing the golem effect to step into our lives. Rosenthal would not be impressed.

Your negativity bias is going to show itself as you start turning your attention to your own stories. Know that at first, you're going to find it easier to recall your negative stories — they're going to be top of mind — and that you might struggle to come up with stories that illustrate another, more positive, side of you. When you do, remember the negativity bias. It tells us that there really is another side to your experiences — you just need to practice a little to bring it to life. Your inner storyteller can be turned to the light.

Excerpt taken from Choose Your Story, Change Your Life by Kindra Hall. Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Hall. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership.

Kindra Hall

Storytelling Keynote Speaker and Author

Kindra Hall is a keynote speaker, author and expert focused on the strategic application of storytelling to today’s communication challenges. Hall’s message spans all industries and her clients include Facebook, Hilton Hotels, Tyson Foods, Target, Berkshire Hathaway and Harvard Medical School. Her Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Stories That Stick, was released by Harper Leadership in the fall of 2019, which Forbes said “may be the most valuable business book you read."

Hall has become the go-to expert for storytelling in business and beyond. Her work can be seen on Inc.com, Entrepreneur.com and as the former chief storytelling officer at Success Magazine. Her second book, Choose Your Story, Change Your Life: Silence Your Inner Critic and Rewrite Your Life from the Inside Out, was released in January 2022.

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