Hardwired to Focus on the Negative

by Janice Maddox
posted 050111

It is necessary to understand the concept of negative attribution when engaging in analysis of where we stand in relation to the world.  In order to understand negative attribution, it is important to be aware of a tiny almond-shaped part of the brain called the amygdala. One of the functions of the amygdala is to do a quick and dirty assessment for threats to our survival when we enter a new environment.

In pre-corporate times, this assessment helped assure survival by spotting man-eating beasts or other dangers quickly enough to escape harm. In modern times, this predisposition to immediately scan new environments for threats leads to an automatic focus on negatives, or what we don’t like in a given situation. We are not designed to enter new situations as optimists, but rather as wary and nervous potential food.

As we are predisposed to notice negatives in our environment by our threat-seeking amygdala, research shows we are also inclined to attribute negative motivation and cause to other’s behavior. When presented with a behavior we have exhibited, we attribute positive motivation/cause. When presented with the exact same behavior in somebody else, we attribute negative motivation/cause.

If subjects in a study are presented with a scenario in which a person cuts somebody off in their car while driving on a highway, they will generally attribute cause/motivation as being inconsideration, stupidity or anger. When subjects are presented with a scenario in which they cut somebody off in traffic, they will attribute cause as being fatigue, stress-related inattention, or an emergency. People are inclined to be more compassionate with themselves than others.

I was eating with friends at a restaurant and our waitress, a woman in her fifties, appeared to be distracted. She forgot things she had been told, there were delays in service, etc. A person at the table began to grumble about the person’s incompetence. Taking a long look at our waitress, I had a sense she had recently had a significant loss in her life. I remembered what it was like when I had to return to work a week after my first husband died of cancer.

This waitress could be an incompetent person who didn’t care about service. Or, more likely, she had something personal going on that was interfering with her ability to focus. She could have just been told she had cancer at an appointment earlier that day. She could still be in shock over the death of a child. All of us have received customer service from somebody in the middle of their tragedy because they couldn’t afford or weren’t able to take time off work.

Recently a semi-truck jack-knifed in a failed attempt to get across a bridge in Downieville. This bridge, I am told, is the only one lane bridge in the California state highway system. Some were compassionate to this person’s plight. Some made derogatory speculation about the driver’s brain capacity. My experience of becoming extremely tired after driving for hours came to me, and I could see myself in this person’s shoes, too tired to think clearly, not seeing a sign and wanting to get home.

Then, there are all the potential extenuating circumstances in the person’s life we don’t know about. Are they trying to get home in time for the birth of their grandchild? Do they have an ill spouse? Are they losing their home? An awareness of our natural automatic responses and their limitations can change the world, or at least our experience of it, one interaction at a time.


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