Avoiding Negative Bias

Our brains have evolved to be more attuned to negative events than to positive events. This is referred to as negativity bias. While this bias has served to keep humans alive, the outcome may not always be so great when it shows up in the workplace.

So, what’s the problem?

I’ll focus on a couple aspects of this bias that I believe can lead us astray when running a business.

The first aspect is that we give more weight to negative events than we do to positive ones. For example, consider two customer comments: “Service was a bit slower than expected” and “Service was a bit faster than I expected”. These statements are equal in intensity, with the first being on the negative side and the second on the positive side. However, due to our bias, the negative statement has a stronger impact on us than the positive one.

How big is the asymmetry in impact? Research suggests that the ratio of good to bad needs to be about 5:1 for things to even out.

The second aspect is that we all have this bias but are usually unaware of it. However we would like to categorize it, this bias tends to operate automatically and just beneath our conscious awareness. It can, thus, influence how we behave without us having the slightest idea it is doing so.

There are nuances to the negativity bias, to be sure, but this “propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information” can lead to poor decision-making for business owners. Consider the following scenarios:

  • A handful of negative customer reviews prompts a change in a user interface, a website, a product, or a process;
  • In considering a new idea, a host of negative outcomes immediately come to mind as to why it’s not a good idea so it gets dropped…

The first scenario leads to activity that is, at best, a distraction for the business, and at worst, detrimental to performance. The second scenario focuses only on the risks and does not give due consideration to the opportunities that also exist.

How does one avoid these pitfalls? Try this approach:

  1. Recognize that the bias exists;
  2. Use data to put events/information into context;
  3. Check your math and make the decision

Let’s try this approach on the first scenario above:

  1. I remind myself that I will naturally feel that negative reviews are more important, more truthful than positive reviews;
  2. Collect all customer reviews for the last x months and determine the ratio of positive to negative reviews;
  3. If 5 out of 200 reviews were bad, the math doesn’t add up — don’t make any change based on the reviews. If 195 out of 200 reviews were bad, the math adds up — make some changes!

Let me know if you have other ways to handle this type of bias: mark@thebusinesstherapist.com



Author: Mark Cassar
Great businesses solve problems really well. And solving problems is what physicists do best. Mark has spent the last 20 years helping people understand and solve problems, in business and academia.

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