Brain Rejects Negative Thoughts

Good news: your brain is hardwired for good news
Bad news: your brain is hardwired for good news

Why don't people stop smoking even after hearing bazillion public service messages that doing so will give them cancer? Why do people get married even though the rate of divorce is 50%?

Neuroscientists have the answer: it's because the human brain rejects negative thoughts (and yes, sometimes to the detriment of the brain's host).

When the news was positive, all people had more activity in the brain's frontal lobes, which are associated with processing errors. With negative information, the most optimistic people had the least activity in the frontal lobes, while the least optimistic had the most.

It suggests the brain is picking and choosing which evidence to listen to.

Dr Sharot said: "Smoking kills messages don't work as people think their chances of cancer are low. The divorce rate is 50%, but people don't think it's the same for them. There is a very fundamental bias in the brain."

Dr Chris Chambers, neuroscientist from the University of Cardiff, said: "It's very cool, a very elegant piece of work and fascinating.

"For me, this work highlights something that is becoming increasingly apparent in neuroscience, that a major part of brain function in decision-making is the testing of predictions against reality - in essence all people are 'scientists'.

"And despite how sophisticated these neural networks are, it is illuminating to see how the brain sometimes comes up with wrong and overly optimistic answers despite the evidence."


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Actually, I'd like to share a recent mundane example of the brain rejecting "negativity". This is taken from the recently uploaded TEDxMileZero - Mike Sheehan - Sociometry: Revealing Hidden Structures in Group Behaviour.

Cross your arms (as normal).

Look at your arms as they are crossed and take note of which arm is on top.

Uncross your arms.

Cross your arms with the opposite arm on top.

Notice how you have a strong tendency to follow your old pattern. Ask yourself if you feel embarrassed? Awkward? "Unprofessional"? Would you feel different if someone was watching you?
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This is just the tip of that iceberg. If the question is: Why are we so biased in favour of positivity? The answer is: We model reality mentally with value attached to circumstances revolving around a self-image, with a tendency to view the self in a positive light relative to the circumstances.

Some of this is the result of bad theory in academic psychology. The belief that boosting positive self-image and consequently positive illusions was best or at least better than a negativity bias affected our whole culture. Psychologist now realize that any bias is bad and what we really need to do is be realistic (Twenge, Crocker, Leary, et. al.).
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