Tracy P Alloway Ph.D.

Keep It in Mind

Outlook matters

Paying attention to the snake can save your life, but harm your mental health

Posted Nov 01, 2016

According to the negativity bias, our default mode is to focus attention on negative stimuli because it is linked to survival. For example, when there are competing stimuli of a snake and a flower on the ground, you are more likely to pay attention to the snake, rather than the flower, to avoid a potentially life-threatening situation.

But this attention comes at a price, according to our recent study.

Human behavior is goal-directed and when we face an impediment to achieving a goal, we can respond with either a pessimistic outlook or an optimistic one. Because the brain responds to negative stimuli quicker and more strongly than positive ones, we are more likely to adopt a pessimistic outlook.

We tested over 2000 nonclinical volunteers, aged between 16 and 79 years, from a wide demographic range. They were asked questions, like ‘I think about how sad I feel’.

Participants also responded to questions about their dispositional optimism to find out whether they were typically more optimistic, believing in positive future outcomes; or typically more pessimistic, holding to a more fatalistic outcome.

There were 3 main findings:

1. Age is a major predictor in determining how pessimistic we are

Younger individuals (late teens and twenties) had higher pessimism scores compared to their older peers. Almost 20% of individual differences in pessimistic outlooks was explained by age.

2. A pessimistic outlook predicts depression

Almost 85% of those who reported feeling depressed had negative view about the future. They believed that “If something can go wrong for me, it will” and “I hardly ever expect things to go my way”.

3. A strong working memory can refocus attention on a positive outcome

 Working memory, the ability to process information, predicted the participants’ dispositional optimism. A strong working memory can counter a pessimistic outlook and focus on an optimistic perspective.

Joshua Dean @jpdx
Source: Joshua Dean @jpdx

So while it may be evolutionary advantageous to focus on the negative, maybe my friend Joshua Dean has the right idea – instead of crying over spilt milk, we should look forward to chocolate milk Fridays.