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Why do we lead with fear instead of hope?

Last month, Joe Biden accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. In his acceptance speech, he urged Americans to choose hope over fear. Fear has become such a central theme in our lives, it’s hard to get away from it. Fear of the pandemic, fear of the economy falling apart, fear of the other. The current political and media landscape exacerbates those feelings, but when we look back in time, we can see it’s not a new trope.

People make decisions based on emotions, and fear is one of the strongest emotions we can experience. Those in power have recognized that and often exploit that sentiment to influence public opinion.

I wondered why people are so receptive to fear. Why are we obsessed with the idea of losing everything to some obscure evil forces that are out to destroy us? If we could understand what drives this compulsion we may be able to control it better.

We are hardwired for negativity.

Humans have a natural tendency to negativity, which is called “negativity bias.” Studies and history have shown that we are more likely to be affected by negative information than positive or neutral. Bad news or situations stick with us longer and impact us much more strongly than good ones.

A single negative event can overpower numerous positive experiences.

Social psychologists have been studying negativity bias theory for some time. It is thought to be a function of our evolution, dating to thousands of years ago when our environment and its predators were constant threats. To survive, humans learned to react to danger quickly and over time, we designed systems to control these environmental threats. Although the immediate threat to our survival no longer exists, our brains haven’t evolved past it yet.

Why should we care about negativity bias?

Social scientist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney explored its impact on our decision making in their book, The Power of Bad (2019)*.

Our constant focus on the negative means that we are more likely to:

  • Look for negative information. Our news feed today is dominated by terrible stories, in part because our natural tendency to go for the negative is leading us to self select into more negative and misinformation. Today’s media and algorithm-based social feeds are optimizing to what gets the most reactions. It’s taken us to a place where even mainstream media outlets are amplifying fake and damaging news from disreputable sources simply because it gets them more clicks.

  • Make decisions based on our fear of bad outcomes. It doesn’t matter if those bad outcomes are unlikely to happen; we tend to prioritize protecting ourselves from the potential bad rather than working to create better outcomes.

Solution-driven thinking: from fear to hope

If we can recognize this pattern in our behavior, both at our individual level and community level, we can find ways to overcome it. Fear is the easy choice because it supports the status quo. Hope requires us to commit to change.

What we can do to move past fear-based decision making is to start focusing on solutions instead of protection.

We spend so much time trying to protect ourselves from change that we are actively blocking progress that will make our lives and communities safer, more connected and thriving.

A solutions-based mindset means that we have to adopt new perspectives:

  • Stop thinking in black and white terms (metaphorically). We are so polarized we refuse to hear anyone who doesn’t agree with us 100% on everything and that isn’t productive. Like it or not, we have a broad spectrum of opinions and it’s not possible for everyone to get everything they want. We need to start leading with humanity instead of personal wishes. What is good for our communities, our society, our humanity, is what is good for the individual in the end.

  • Limit our exposure to negative media and politics. We all need to make an effort to stay away from media coverage and people who always focus on negativity and never on constructive solutions.

  • Make the distinction between reason and feeling. Humans have the most complex ability to use reason to analyze facts and separate them from their emotions. Unfortunately, we’re too often letting feelings dictate decision making.

It’s important for us to recognize that our natural biases are hindering our ability to create positive outcomes for ourselves. With that knowledge, we can take steps to recalibrate the way we see our environment and other people in it. We can start ignoring what isn’t constructive and use our energy on solutions.

Want More?

*Listen to the “Reasons To Be Cheerful” episode of the Freakonomics Podcast to hear from the authors on the power of negativity over the human mind.


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