Did you know that our brains are wired to be 2 – 2.5x more likely to focus on the negative than the positive? This can affect our propensity to take healthy risks, and can lead to fear-based decisions and stagnation in our careers.
In Kahneman and Tversky’s 1984 paper, they theorised that loss aversion expresses “the intuition that a loss of $X is more aversive than a gain of $X is attractive. Loss aversion explains people’s reluctance to bet on a fair coin for equal stakes: The attractiveness of the possible gain is not nearly sufficient to compensate for the aversiveness of the possible loss. For example, most respondents in a sample of undergraduates refused to stake $10 on the toss of a coin if they stood to win less than $30”.
This theory can be extrapolated to a number of areas in life – imagine, you’ve just had your quarterly review, and your manager gave you the classic “compliment sandwich” of one good thing, followed by one area of improvement, and finished with one good thing. You are up to 2.5x more likely to focus on the area of improvement than the positive comments!
No, our brain isn’t just being an ass – it’s Neuroscience in action!
Negativity comes from a fear of loss, and fear is an incredibly powerful emotion. It occupies a primal part of our brain – the amygdala and hippocampus are the parts of the brain that combine emotions with memories. When we are stressed or fearful, these parts become overactive and can dredge up memories and past failures as a kind of defence mechanism so we can stop it from reoccurring. This can be even more pronounced when we are under general stress at the same time – we are less likely to take healthy risks at all, so it’s less likely that we’ll seek that promotion, or go on that date, when we are suffering under chronic stress. Not a very empowering way to live your life!
Why does it do this? The brain is inundated every second with millions of pieces of information, and has to somehow filter these signals down to what it is we actually need to know – or at least, what your brain thinks we need to know. The thalamus, a part of the brain’s limbic system, is responsible for this selective filtering, or “selective attention”, and uses all information gleaned through your eyes, ears, smell, taste and touch to make its decisions. The limbic system then has the overarching responsibility to decide what we should retain as conscious thoughts and memories, and what should be discarded.
A part of this selective attention is known as “value tagging”, and it is the brain’s way of assigning a level of importance to each piece of information it receives. This is based on our past experiences, memories and filters, making it different for everyone – I notice bright blue Suzuki Swifts as this was my first car, but many others would see it and ride on by without a second thought. This can be positive for us, however the brain can also tag a value as “negative” because of past experiences or emotions associated with it, or other experiences like it.
With all this in mind, it is easy to see what effect a propensity for negativity might have upon us in the workplace – we want to excel, but we are nervous about giving a presentation, because our selective filtering will prioritise avoiding shame or criticism over potential career success.
So, in a nutshell, our brain on autopilot thinks it’s doing us a solid by protecting us from a negative and potentially harmful outcome, when in actual fact it can be getting in our way of taking healthy risks and really excelling in all areas of our life.
So what can we do about this? Make our brain work for us, instead of against us.
When we know what our ultimate goals are, and are abundantly clear on what we what to achieve, value tagging will take over and the brain will become more aware of what it is we really want. Instead of being on protective autopilot, when we envisage ourselves achieving that promotion, or nailing a presentation, and feel all the positive emotions associated with this, the brain will then start to be on the lookout for how it can actually achieve this. Selective attention and value tagging can absolutely work in the positive – you just need to tell your brain that this is what you want so that its on the look-out for opportunities.
Coaching is a great way to get clear on exactly what it is that you want to achieve, and also gives you the repetition and accountability needed to pursue this with purpose and passion. It can show your brain that yes, this is a risk, but it’s healthy and wanted, with positive emotions attached to it. Imagine giving that presentation – see it, hear it, live it – so your brain recognises that what it thought was a danger is actually an exciting opportunity. Your confidence will soar, and with the increase in positive chemicals to your brain its attitude to presentations will also change over time, from caution to seeking them out for you.
Meditation, visualisation, journaling, even just talking about it with a friend or loved one can also make those connections in the brain more and more powerful.
Book in for a free 45 minute Moxie Discovery Call to see how we might be able to start to retrain your brain to grasp every opportunity that comes your way!
 Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A., 1984. Choices, values and frames. American Psychologist, 39(4), pp.341-50