Negativity Bias

[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
The negativity bias (or negativity effect) suggests that negative events are more salient and impactful on behaviour than positive events of equal intensity. For example, losing $100 might reduce your happiness by 100 points, whereas gaining $100 may only increase your happiness by 95 points. Baumeister et al. (2001) present a seminal explanation of this phenomena alongside evidence, that has been cited over 10,000 times and is worth a read to better understand the different domains that this bias can impact. For example, negative events have been found to attract attention more immediately than non-negative events (Carretié et al., 2001; Reyes, 2018) and lead to greater persistence of attention (Hajack & Olvet, 2008). Similarly, negative events are more likely to be remembered, which in turn (alongside enhanced attention) can lead to a greater vividness and accuracy of the memory (Kensinger, 2007), as well as propensity for learning and attitude formation (Baltazar et al., 2012; Yang & Unnava, 2016). Further, the negativity bias can impact decision making as seen in Nobel prize winning prospect theory (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979) which examines how individuals make decisions under uncertain conditions and demonstrates the concept of loss aversion. Within this theory, individuals change their risk preference when making decisions based on their expected outcomes in respect to losses or gains. For example, they may prefer a guaranteed reward over taking a risk for a higher reward, even if the higher reward has greater expected value. Or conversely, they may take excessive risk when it can help them avoid a loss. As a result, the way rewards or losses are framed becomes important in branding and marketing.

It is however important to note that some research has suggested that our negativity bias fades with age, and may even be replaced with a bias for positivity termed the positivity effect (Carstensen & DeLiema, 2018). Further, the context in which a negative experience occurs likely influences the impact/importance of a customer’s negativity bias. In some marketing contexts, the negativity bias may not be an important consideration or may play minimal to no role in respect to perception, memory, attention, or decision making. For example, Gal and Rucker (2018) do a wonderful job challenging the universality of loss aversion and laying out evidence that losses may not always be more impactful than gains. Just note that loss aversion and the negativity bias are separate concepts, with the negativity bias encompassing a broader cognitive terrain. If you attempt to leverage the negativity bias or loss aversion, it is always important to A/B test and experiment.

Negativity Spirals of Death

The most important consequence of the negativity bias is salient in industries where reviews become a key factor in consumer decision making. Imagine your business created an app which was broken at launch. Users are likely to leave negative reviews, which will be seen by new users. As a result of our reliance on social proof, those new users will experience your app with pre-existing expectations that there will be problems. Thus, if a user experiences something relatively neutral (e.g. misspelled words), they may be more likely to interpret it as a justification for their pre-existing negative beliefs. This in turn leads to a more-negative experience for users, and increases the chance of them leaving negative reviews or uninstalling the app. More negative reviews create greater social proof pressures in respect to negative beliefs. And this cycle continues near endlessly until you have run your brand into the ground. Keep in mind that these negativity spirals can also occur in respect to businesses that are not connected to reviews. For example, if an experience feels negative or off, users will often turn to Google, the Better Business Bureau, or social media, to see if others have similar issues or feel the same way. If users see negative content related to your brand, they will likely form negative opinions of your brand, and may be more likely to share their perceived negative experience. Luckily, Wooten and Reed (1998) have demonstrated that if a user experience is neutral or positive, they are less likely to rely on reviews to inform their experience. Thus, in some situations (e.g. businesses where reviews require effort on the part of the customer to find) a positive user experience can help you escape an ongoing negativity spiral of death.

Practical Examples of Negativity Bias

Clickbait Negativity

One great way to take advantage of the negativity bias is to create blog posts, advertisements, or social media content that describe a negative event, followed by presenting your brand/business as a potential solution. For example, a software as a service company might create an advertisement that states “80% of businesses lose money from these five bad habits” and then present their software as a potential solution to the bad habits. The goal here is to use negativity to attract attention and enhance memory/learning, which may lead to the reader encoding your brand as a potential solution to whatever negative event you define.

Criticizing Competitors

If you are an up-and-coming startup in an industry full of veteran brands, you might benefit from drawing attention to existing negative experiences that are common in the industry. One way to do this is to look for pain points in the reviews of competitors, and try to solve/overcome them with whatever product/service you are offering. You can then construct your advertisements to make these pain points salient (taking into account that users are likely aware of these problems due to the negativity bias), and offer your product/service as a better alternative. Even if your competitors have amazing products, you can describe neutral or minor issues (e.g. minor issues with convenience) as negative events. Although you want to make sure you are not crossing any ethical or legal boundaries when doing so. Once made aware of a problem, a user is more likely to notice that problem next time they use the associated product/service. Thus, even if they do not immediately check out your brand, they might begin to get frustrated with the current brand they use, and seek out your brand/business in the future.

Works Cited

Baltazar, N. C., Shutts, L., & Kinzler, K. D. (2012). Children show heightened memory for threatening social actions. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 112(1), 102-110.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370.

Carretié, L., Mercado, F., Tapia, M., & Hinojosa, J. A. (2001). Emotion, attention and the "negativity bias", studied through event-related potentials. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 41(1), 75–85.

Carstensen, L. L., & DeLiema, M. (2018). The positivity effect: A negativity bias in youth fades with age. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 19, 7-12.

Gal, D., & Rucker, D. D. (2018). The loss of loss aversion: Will it loom larger than its gain?. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 28(3), 497-156.

Hajcak, G., & Olvet, D. M. (2008). The persistence of attention to emotion: Brain potentials during and after picture presentation. Emotion, 8(2), 250–255.

Kensinger, E. A. (2007). Negative emotion enhances memory accuracy: Behavioral and neuroimaging evidence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(4), 213–218.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.

Reyes, T. (2018). Negativity bias in attention allocation: Retail investors’ reaction to stock returns. International Review of Finance, 19(1), 155-189.

Wooten, D.B. and Reed, A. II. (1998). Informational influence and the ambiguity of product experience: Order effects on the weighting of evidence. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 7(1), 79-99.

Yang, L., & Unnava, H. R. (2016). Ambivalence, selective exposure, and negativity effect. Psychology & Marketing, 35(5), 331-343.

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