Overriding Our Negative Instinct

Under a serious threat of danger, some of us call for vicious and immediate retaliation toward the source of the threat. During difficult times, some of us become consumed with protecting ourselves at the expense of others. For example, we have observed political campaigns during times of hardship or uncertainty that are filled more with negative attacks on opponents versus highlighting the platform of the nominees. 

Even under minimal stress or a perceived threat, many of us become depressed or pessimistic about the eventual outcomes. We have seen how the perception of the decline of US public education has caused many to believe that things will never improve. This belief is leading to the push for alternative educational programs and feed into the mistrust that some have for our educators.

Why are we so quick to go to the dark side? As it turns out, we are hardwired to do this very thing. In our earliest form, cognitive functions were minimal, and our sensory capabilities were our means to survival. When there was a perceived threat, the body went into its emergency response system; it would flee, fight, or freeze. In psychological terms, it is referred to as negativity bias. Humans survived because of this bias toward the worst case scenario. 

Fast forward to today, where we have sophisticated cognitive functioning. We understand the human spirit and assume good intentions of others. We are generous and creative and problem solving and responsive. That is, until we sense danger, are thrown into crisis, or perceive a threat to our safety. At that moment, we revert to the sensory system and automatically go into survival mode. Like it has in our history, our negativity bias keeps us safe in dangerous and threatening situations today. 

For all of our complex and sophisticated thinking, our natural instinct remains biased toward negativity. It is why negative remarks stay with us far longer than praise. It helps us understand why we are depressed, anxious, and defensive.

We know this automatic response to "all things dark" keeps us physically safe; however, we also know that our natural instinct is a survival technique - not a problem solver. If we wish to resolve a problem, stay constructive, and use sophisticated cognitive functions, we must move beyond nature.

Our situations are messy and complex. Immediate and natural responses are likely sensory in nature and automatically biased toward the negative. Noticing this in ourselves and in others is a first important step in facing challenges. Pausing to notice our natural instincts gives our cognitive functioning the go-ahead to reconnect.

The next time you are in a very challenging situation that is not life threatening, notice the automatic responses in your body. Take a deep breath, reminding yourself that you are safe. Then, call up your generous, responsive, and better self in order to move forward. 


Thinking is the place where intelligent actions begin. We pause long enough to look more carefully at a situation, to see more of its character, to think about why it's happening, to notice how it's affecting us and others. ~Margaret J. Wheatley





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