A cockroach in a bowl of cherries

One cockroach can ruin a bowl of cherries but one cherry can do nothing for a bowl of cockroaches – Daniel Kahneman.

Our amygdala, the seat of unconscious fear in our brain, is masterful at sensing negative information. A terrified pair of eyes were flashed on a screen for 2/100th of a second. None of its viewers could consciously recognize it, but their amygdala could pick them up. A similar effect was not observed with a pair of smiling eyes. Further, one angry face stands out in a crowd of happy faces. But a happy face does not pop out of an angry crowd.

Our mind’s bias for negativity turns news and social media into whirlpools of despair. It is no surprise that an algorithm that maximizes our attention does so using endless streams of sensational information that is predominantly negative. These algorithms or the people who run these corporations aren’t evil. They are just feeding our brains what we are most likely to notice.

Our bias for negativity served us well in a hostile world. Our ancestors in the jungle who noticed the grass move and suspected it to be a lion were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Negativity is a blessing in a dangerous world, where death could come at the hands of beasts of prey, mysterious disease or widespread warfare. A lucky person could survive past 30 in such a world – and the ones who did ended up propagating a bias for negativity. Today, with several actuarial tables crossing 70 years, our bias for negativity is vestigial at the very least.

Sadly, the connection between a hostile world and the negativity bias is reinforced both ways. If negativity was beneficial in a hostile environment, our bias for negativity tends to turn a peaceful world more hostile. It pushes us to war, danger and tribalism. We see how these topics dominates political discourse across the world today. 

To work against this innate bias is to swim against the current. A fine start would be to design better algorithms that are purposeful – or at the very least, are not programmed with advertising revenue as their ultimate goal.

It has taken us millions of years in an unfriendly world to construct one around the ideals of peace, happiness and fraternity. But we are yet to realize how fragile these values are.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

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