Biased Towards Survival
Coming to terms with our conditioned minds
This web of thoughts is organized around a finding in psychology dubbed the negativity bias.
Put simply, humans are more affected by bad experiences than good ones. Less simply, studies across many domains of human behavior consistently show that negative information commands greater attention and has a bigger impact on our thoughts and behavior than positive information. Our sensitivity to the world is asymmetric, giving priority to what registers as negative.
Setting aside the philosophical complexity of defining opposites, we can go with a practical notion that something positive is “desirable, beneficial, or pleasant”, while a negative experience is “undesirable, harmful or unpleasant”. You can read a overview of the idea here or dive into a thorough review of the research behind this principle here.
The dynamics of evolution provides a ready explanation for this tendency: avoiding threats is far more important to survival than pursuing opportunities. Missing a chance to eat is not fatal, but missing signs of an approaching predator could end your chance to contribute to the gene pool. Prioritizing negative stimulus may well be a foundational tendency of life, the result of natural selection operating primarily via death (and sex, which is hard when you’re dead…)
Take it hard vs. take it easy
In a yoga class, we turn over a portion of our agency to someone else so we can focus on other elements of our experience. Though the teacher declares what general positions we will take, it remains our choice how strongly we engage in the various actions of the pose and how deeply we press against our edges. What informs these decisions?
I have noticed in myself recently that I generally deepen a pose until it feels somewhat uncomfortable, like I’m challenging some limitation. “Finding your edge” is a common suggestion in Yogaland. Certainly going past your edge is a recipe for injury, but this metaphor implicitly suggests that staying “back” from your edge is less worthwhile. God forbid we pursue what feels good or easy!
I think there is value in learning to abide more calmly at our edges, but it also seems like a clear example of the negativity bias. If we automatically assign greater significance to uncomfortable experience, then we naturally place more value on yoga that feels "hard”. I speculate that this bias towards the difficult fuels the pursuit of ever-more-extreme yoga postures, which are artistically lovely accomplishments but not necessary to reap the benefits of yoga.
Notice for yourself, what looks more impressive to you. This?
Back when my joints were young and I had fewer commitments, I dabbled in more exotic poses and occasionally taught a few. A few things became clear:
Bias in favor of difficulty led many students to seek to jump right to the complicated stuff.
Very few students have strong enough fundamentals to do more extreme postures effectively or safely.
If I slowed down in order to teach these foundational skills, some folks got bored and stopped coming to my classes (especially in more vinyasa-oriented studios)
At the same time, in my personal study of Phoenix Rising Yoga and ParaYoga, I was finding that simple movements and postures could provide tremendously rich experience. Why spend my energy (and risk my low back) pursuing fancy poses when I could get so much from moving between Child, Table and Downward Dog with even breathing?
Ironically, the truly “difficult” task may be to allow ourselves to “take the easy way” out of suffering.
The negativity bias is just one of countless cognitive biases that science has studied in the past few decades. Here’s an impressive chart of 180 of them:
Some of these surely overlap. I like how they are categorized according to the constraints that give rise to them. Negativity bias is listed under “Too much information”.
Way before the Internet, life faced the challenge of winnowing down the onslaught of sensory information into manageable datastreams. We simply can’t pay attention to everything at once. There’s only so much time, glucose and processing power available to a brain, so prioritizing the most relevant information and relying on cognitive shortcuts is a vital adaptation. Information about impending danger is certainly relevant!
This evolutionary perspective on cognition suggests that biases are an inevitable result of organisms evolving in limited circumstances. Therefore, having biases is not a character flaw or the result of malevolent social conditioning (though they make us lamentably susceptible to manipulation). They are a foundational and necessary structure of all minds. If we want to reduce the harm stereotypes cause, we’d do well to keep their origins in mind and be patient with ourselves and with each other.
The occasionally self-reflective species
How remarkable that we homo sapiens have managed to become aware of our own cognitive biases! After at least 3.5 billion years of evolution, Earth has given rise to minds that can study themselves and (sporadically) choose to behave differently.
Of course, this project didn’t start with Western science. Contemplative traditions like yoga have sought to understand and improve the default human condition for millenia. I haven’t found anything in yoga psychology as fine-grained as the chart above, but there were plenty of attempts to categorize the causes of suffering. Consider the model of the 5 Primal Afflictions (klesha) from the Yoga Sutra.
Ignorance / Believing you’re separate and permanent (avidya)
Self-ing / Believe you’re identical to the contents of your mind (asmita)
Desire / Attachment to pleasure (raga)
Aversion / Attachment to pain (dvesa)
Fear of death (abhinivesha)
Negativity makes it on the list! Regarding fear of death, the text comments1:
Clinging to life and the fear of death are sustained by an intrinsic force in the same way that the other primal causes of suffering persist, dominating even the wise.
What is this intrinsic force? To venture another yoga/science connection, I’d point to the second law of thermodynamics, which colloquially states that things will inevitably fall apart if we stop making effort to keep them together. Life requires a constant influx of energy and materials to sustain itself in the face of decay. Life that does not seek to preserve itself will soon end… thus arises the negativity bias.
(On a related note, I’d suggest that a perception of separateness (avidya) is necessary for life and mind to exist at all. Without cell walls, exoskeletons or skin, there is no organism to sustain. From the perspective of evolutionary biology, avidya isn’t a mistake that could be otherwise, it is a precondition for life to exist at all.)
Prioritizing negative experience may have helped our species survive, but it doesn’t do wonders for individual mental health. One negative remark spoils a long list of praises. One pea gives a princess insomnia. One scary headline will haunt a sunny day.
Does this evolved tendency still support our survival? In many ways, it seems like the answer is “no”. The stress created by fixating on what’s wrong may pose a greater risk to our health (via chronic inflammation and other bodymind feedback loops) than most perceived threats. Our love of bad news is also an irresistible target for advertisers, headline writers and politicians, amplifying our worst impulses at a global scale.
What to do? At the level of conscious deliberation, we might exercise some skepticism when our mind coughs up a juicy negative thought, knowing the felt intensity is skewed by our negativity bias. We might try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones (a popular notion in New Age-inflected modern yoga), or just focus on our breathing instead of the pea under the mattress. Rick Hanson suggests strengthening positive experience in order to balance the exaggerated weight of negative ones.
All of the above are “top down” methods, where we deliberately adjust our behavior to counter the negativity bias. The difficulty with these attempts they can easily reinforce what we are seeking to change. It’s like trying really hard to relax: the effort we make in seeking the desired outcome prevents the outcome. So: we might decide we “don’t want to be so negative” and set about correcting our cognitive behaviors that are “bad”, making negativity into yet another problem.
Carl Rogers suggests an alternative to the self-improvement project:
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
― Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy
Rather than make our negative experiences into enemies, fueling the fire even further, we take the radical step of allowing ourselves to be the messy, imperfect mammals that we are. Mindfulness meditation is a way of training ourselves to take this perspective. There’s even a small study showing that it reduces negativity bias, particularly by increasing awareness of positive stimuli. Here are the instructions given to participants:
Participants were guided in anchoring their attention on the qualities of each breath as it occurred, without trying to control the breath but simply experiencing it as it was in that moment with a sense of curiosity. Additional instructions guided participants to register and accept any thoughts or feelings as they occurred—acknowledging them gently without dwelling on them—to reconnect to the present moment.
Sounds simple, but it’s damn hard at first!
To pay attention without trying to judge or control is quite opposite the evolved purpose of our mind, and I find it pretty amazing that so many humans are practicing it these days.2 I don’t think meditation will single-handedly save the world, but it does seem vital that more and more individuals acknowledge and take responsibility for the cognitive habits that are steering us towards a self-created cliff. Perhaps by understanding the innocent (inevitable?) evolutionary origins of our biases and confusions, we can decline easy narratives of good/evil and approach ourselves (and each other) will the curiosity and acceptance that makes real change possible. My prayer!
Mondays 10-11:30a on Zoom - lecture and practice
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Earth Study Class Collection
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Translation by Mukunda Stiles
Even though there are valid critiques of mindfulness as a response to late capitalism; a subject for another newsletter