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The Negativity Bias: Why You Care More About Your Failures Than Your Successes

“There is the theory of the Möbius, where time becomes a loop.”

Just kidding. Not about the Möbius theory, that's real, just about it being pertinent to this blogpost. I find this blog lacking both in Star Trek TNG memes and electronic music.

The theory of the Negativity Bias, distilled, goes something like this: People are wired to respond more strongly to negative experiences than they are to neutral or positive experiences. We are also wired to overestimate the risk of the possibility of a negative experience AND to overestimate the severity of a possible negative outcome.

This clever theory finds its home in the amygdalae (amygdala, singular). You've got two of these little almond shaped buggers in your brain, one per temporal lobe. The amygdalae are part of the limbic system, and are responsible for processing memory, decision making, and emotional reactions. The left and right amygdalae have independent memory systems and functions, but they work together to store memories of emotion, to interpret emotion (as in facial expressions and/or memories of actions of others), to form impressions and social judgements, etc.


The Negativity Bias is commonly thought to have developed initially as a survival mechanism. Most studies and papers that I've read about it study it in adults, but there has also been some research into if and how the theory applies to children. There is even some evidence that it may exist in infants. What a bummer.

Negativity Bias In Action:

Imagine you're a cavewoman out gathering whatever is in season that's good to eat. You see a movement out of the corner of your eye. The bushes are rustling. Is it a tiger or is it the wind? You don't know, but your brain tells you to be cautious and afraid. If it's a tiger, you've got a major problem. If it's the wind, no big deal. The brain automatically leaps to worst case scenario, and that's a crude example of the Negativity Bias keeping cavewoman you alive.

To put a finer point on my crude example, the paper 'Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion' by Rozin and Royzman cites some research by Guido Peeters that stated (to paraphrase) that: Although negative events are much rarer than neutral or positive effects, it is to our advantage to be able to adapt to the (albeit less likely) negative effect.

So the negative effect, as in possible death by tiger, creates more urgency than a neutral or positive effect, and it is more to our advantage to be able to adapt to the possible negative effect, than to take much note of a neutral or positive effect.

What does all this have to do with music?

If you're still with me, congratulations on your voyage through my head, now let's come (leap) the the point(s).

The Negativity Bias also works on more subtle levels. The ones I'm most concerned with, as a teacher and player, are the anxiety/fear associated with the possibility of making a mistake (negative effect), and the individual's response to making mistakes. They are, in equal measure, important.

If we take the Negativity Bias as a truism and follow its course of logic, I think it is reasonable to assume that we take more note of (and probably learn more from) our mistakes than from our successes. We make a mistake, we adapt. We play something perfectly, and we rarely think about why it went well.

The Power of Positive Thinking:

Thinking positive is good, I'll never knock it. It's good for growth, mental health, etc. By all means, 'I think I can I think I can I think I can' and Winston Churchill 'We Shall Fight On The Beaches' that business up.

The Power of the Negative Effect:

I've noticed, especially in American Culture, that we have developed an aversion to negativity. Negativity is bad. Mistakes are negative. Mistakes are shameful and scorned. We take a sort of sick glee in witnessing others' mistakes, and we build ourselves up by not making those same mistakes. Sadly, we often do this by never taking the chance of making a mistake. This opposition to negativity, to mistake making and even to failure, I think, limits our potential.

Why Mistakes Are Important:

I personally learn more about how to help my students (and myself in my personal practice) by the mistakes. I try to make it clear to each student that if something isn't working, I'd rather they bring it to me in lesson so I can help them through it, rather than they squeeze the notes out in spite of technical difficulties, for fear of making a mistake in front of me.

Mistakes are crucial for development. Truly.

The Individual's Response to Mistakes and The Zen of Good Practice:

The key, I think, to making mistakes work in your favor is how you respond to them.

The natural response when playing and making a mistake is to tense the muscles and (often) to have all manner of negative self talk go through your head. The muscle tension leads to more mistakes. The negative self talk doesn't do you any favors either.

The skill you/we need to develop is: Recognize your mistakes, but do not place a value judgement on them or perceive them as either failure or threat. The (inevitable) mistake is made, we address it logically and with detachment, and we move on, having learned something.

You are the boss of your body, and with some effort and deliberate intention, you can also be the boss of your brain. Imagine an existence where you can simply work and grow, without the interference of habit and instinct. It's a matter of (some tremendous amount) of practice, but it is attainable.

Parting Exercise:

This is a not at all fun game I play with my students (and myself) called, 'And then what would happen?'.

It goes like this:

  1. You approach a problem passage.

  2. You either stop, or play through the passage well, or play through and make a/several mistake(s).

  3. And then what would happen?

Am I going to yell at you? No. Are you going to yell at you? I hope not. Would an audience yell at you? Nope. Will you be killed by a tiger? Probably also no.

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