Evolution of negativity bias and how to change it

Evolution of negativity bias and how to change it

Imagine you are living thousands of years ago among our ancestors. Unlike many of your peers, you’re an outrageously optimistic prehistoric person, roaming the savannah feeling grateful to be alive.

One day, in the middle of a hunter-gatherer mission, you pause and take a moment to look around and scan the scene. Over to your left, lurking behind a bush, you see an animal. You’ve never seen this animal before. It’s a lion. “Wow, what a fascinating creature.” you think. “I’ll head over there and take a closer look”.

Perhaps the lion is friendly, in which case you may enjoy an interesting encounter. More likely, you’re mauled to death.

A negativity bias

For most of human history, cost-benefit decisions have favoured those with a pessimistic view. We may have missed out on some opportunities but in a threat-filled world, expecting the worst significantly increased the probability that our DNA would remain in the gene pool. A negativity bias in our thinking was adaptive.

Fast forward a few millennia and our bodies and brains continue to be built according to much the same genetic load that influenced our ancestor’s predispositions.

Our brains continue to operate in accordance with this negativity bias. Many forms of evidence suggest that ‘bad’ is stronger than ‘good’ as a general principle, across a wide range of psychological phenomena.

Does the threat of illness motivate us to change behaviour?

Unfortunately, while an effective way to avoid predators, our innate skew toward the negative does not seem to be very effective at motivating us to make good decisions in the modern world. We’re much less likely to be eaten by a predator, but chronic diseases, associated with poor lifestyle decisions, are an increasingly aggressive global killer.

If you were diagnosed with a serious health condition such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease or diabetes, you might imagine that this would be sufficient motivation to change your behaviour. In 2012, researchers posed this question based on longitudinal data from 17,276 individuals. The primary focus was to investigate how patients behaved, before and after a serious diagnosis.

After analysing the 12 years of data covered by the study, the researchers concluded that people rarely made positive changes in lifestyle behaviours, even after they had been diagnosed with a chronic condition.

This is despite strong evidence to suggest that adopting a healthier lifestyle can extend longevity, reduce the likelihood of the condition recurring and enhance quality of life. Bad news does not appear to be an effective motivator for change, but still we persist in using a negativity bias to try to influence behaviour. Are there any other options?

A solution to negativity bias?

Dr Richard Boyatzis is an expert in the field of emotional intelligence and behaviour change. In 2013, Boyatzis and his fellow researcher, Dr Anthony Jack, collaborated on a study to assess contrasting coaching and mentoring approaches.

The researchers divided a cohort of volunteers into two groups. Each volunteer was interviewed for 30 minutes on themes relating to ‘life coaching’ and performance, but the coaches who conducted the interviews used two contrasting techniques:

1) Group one

Coaches asked questions that focussed on the problems and challenges the volunteers were facing. The coaches emphasised problem-solving techniques to try to identify solutions. This approach tended to bring up issues associated with other people’s expectations, weaknesses, obligations, and fears.

2) Group two

Coaches asked questions designed to encourage the volunteers to imagine a positive future, such as how they would like their lives to look in 10 years’ time. The questions drew out the volunteer’s vision in more detail.

Dr Boyatzis describes the coaching approach in group two, which emphasised vision, hopes and dreams, as “coaching and mentoring to the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA).” This contrasts with coaching in group one where the approach is characterised as coaching to the “Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA).”After a period of five to seven days, both groups of volunteers were asked to return and answer a series of follow-up questions by the same coach, using the same approach as in the first interview.

During this second round of questioning, the students' brains were scanned using fMRI, a brain imaging technique which detects changes associated with blood flow, to measure brain activity. The results demonstrated that the two contrasting interview approaches activated different and distinct regions in the brain.

The Negative Emotional Attractor approach, which emphasised the problems over the vision, activated the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ nervous system and regions of the brain associated with blaming ourselves and experiencing negative moods. When we experience NEA, our sympathetic nervous system becomes more dominant. Physiologically, heart rate and blood pressure increase, but we are also more likely to make decisions based on fast, instinctive, but sometimes faulty, shortcuts in our thinking. We are more likely to be fixed, rather than flexible.

A plausible mechanism for PEA

The difference in brain blood flow between the two conditions points to an underlying mechanism that may help to describe why the Positive Emotional Attractor approach is more effective. In the study, it appeared that coaching and mentoring to the PEA resulted in activation of regions in the brain associated with developing a plan or vision for the future.

When we focus our attention on positive themes, reward circuits and areas of our brain associated with experiencing positive moods activate. In addition, our parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system becomes more dominant.

When we reduce our perception of threat, our mind may consider that it’s safe to take more time over decisions and think more deeply. We become more cognitively flexible, able to simulate multiple future possibilities and consider new ideas, as well as taking into account how other people think and feel.

These patterns of activity are vital for motivation, sustaining positive feelings and keeping going when we experience challenges – characteristics that are crucial if we are trying to change our behaviour and work towards a goal.

You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive.
- Dr Richard Boyatzis -

A positive focus to thrive

Psychologist and journalist Dan Goleman quotes Dr Boyatzis as saying: “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive.”

Coaching and mentoring that encourages us to imagine a positive vision of the future, focussing our attention on possibilities and dreams has been shown to enhance behavioural change and increase the likelihood that we will achieve what we are hoping for.

That’s not to say that we should ignore problems entirely. Rather, consider the starting point when you next begin to think about a new challenge or opportunity. Will you begin by listing the problems and threats, or take a step back, make a conscious challenge to your negativity bias and make your starting point a vision for a more positive future, characterised by growth, learning, development and possibility. Evidence suggests this may be the most effective approach; unless, of course, you are staring down a lion.

This article was first published on the World Economic Forum Agenda.
Photos by Tony Kirkbride and Lemuel Butler.

James Hewitt, Head of Science & Innovation
James is passionate about investigating the potential of our high performance bodies and brains. He is an author, speaker and his work includes consulting with Formula 1 drivers and teams in elite sport as well as with global corporations.

Train Your Brain to Improve Your Quality of Life

Train Your Brain to Improve Your Quality of Life

Humans are now living longer than before in our history. This has been largely due to the advances made within both medicine and technology. However, with this increased life expectancy, the burden and prevalence of chronic disease have increased significantly. Conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome and dementia have increased. Not only do these conditions have a big impact on the quality of lives of those who have the conditions, they also have an impact on the lives of those close to the individual. How can we prevent these conditions and specifically what lifestyle factors can reduce the risk of these conditions?

A core principle of Hintsa Performance has always been to help people achieve a better life by optimising each of the 7 elements that constitute the Hintsa philosophy: Mental Energy, Recovery, Physical Training, Nutrition, General Health, Biomechanics and Core. Within these 7 areas, there are many different layers that can be addressed to improve the quality of life. Below, I’ll provide an insight into how we can improve the quality of life by increasing cognitive capacity (brain power) throughout the life span and thus prevent some chronic debilitating brain conditions. 

The power of the brain

There is very strong research that unequivocally demonstrates that appropriate physical exercise programs can prevent, improve and reverse chronic disease. The basis of this training centers around supercompensation. This concept is based around the general premise that a physiological system is trained, a stress is induced, there is an immediate dip in performance (whilst recovery takes place) and finally an improved capacity for work/performance results. This is under the proviso that there are appropriate rest conditions. Such research and knowledge is well established. 

What is less well known within the public domain is that there is conclusive research that is beginning to demonstrate that the supercompensation philosophy also applies to the brain. Such research is particularly exciting and is opening up new avenues and ideas on how to optimise, maintain and improve brain health. 

In recent years there have been excellent advances made into research pertaining to how we can improve psychological wellbeing and in particular, preventing debilitating cognitive diseases such as dementia. Such research has used a multi-faceted approach, by using a diverse range of research methods and study designs, ranging from analysis of social demographics to more technologically advanced studies that image brain activity. The results of these studies have helped shape recommendations for lifestyle modifications throughout the lifespan including; Early Childhood, Adulthood, and Elderly Adults. 

Early childhood

In 2007, researchers examined 33 identical Swedish twins, of which one twin had dementia and the other did not. Of interest to the researchers was the environmental causes that could have possibly caused dementia, in particular, educational levels. Of the non-demented twins, twelve left school at the earliest possible age, in contrast to the demented twins of which 25 left school at the minimum age. Such conclusive results point to the influence of education and more widely cognitive stimulation on dementia.


In 2006 German researchers studied the brains of German medical students who were studying for exams, three months before, during the exam period and then three months after. Of interest to the researchers was the thickness of the grey matter and hippocampus. This was measured via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). As a general note, the researchers found that the grey matter within the parietal cortex had actually increased during the 3-month study period. At the 3-month post exam follow-up, which was typically characterised by less learning and a reduction in study load, the cortex had maintained its level of grey matter and not regressed to the pre-study levels. Incredibly the hippocampus continued to grow throughout the 6-month study period. The hippocampus is directly implicated with dementia and memory recall.  

Elderly adults

Verghese et al (2003) found that those people who completed leisure activities including reading, writing, hobbies, and games were more mentally sharper and at less risk of Alzheimer than those who did not. There is another dimension to the research that demonstrates a protective effect against dementia, that is not directly related to mental stimulations or challenges, that is; the strength of social networks. The results of a study conducted by (ref 15 chapter 5) concluded that an increase in the number of contacts with friends and family in 80-year-olds had a protective effect against Alzheimer. 

Growth requires rest

It should be noted that many of the mental challenges within the various studies were seen as workable and achievable. When task difficulty exceeded cognitive ability, the results of the studies were not conclusive. Furthermore, as with physical training, appropriate rest is needed between the stimulation for growth to take place. 

The field of neuroscience and social neuroscience continues to reveal that the influence of our environment and lifestyle does have a profound effect on our mental capacity. Similar to physical training and the results it has on the musculoskeletal system, appropriate mental stimulation and a conducive environment throughout the lifespan also illicit a training-like response. Continual appropriate challenging yet novel mental challenges, and a good social network, are all important in the prevention and reversal of dementia. 

Stuart Smith, Coaching Director
Stuart is an accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach who has worked at Hintsa for the last 7 years. During this time he has worked with corporate executives as well as junior and F1 racing drivers. He has an interest in Psychology and how it can be applied to the various environments that he works within.


Bennett, D.A., et al. (2006) ‘The effect of social networks on the relation between Alzeihmers disease pathology and level of cognitive function in old people: a longitudinal cohort study’. Lancet Neurology, 5(5), 406 - 12.

Draganski et al. (2006),  ‘Temporal and Spatial dynamics of Brain Structure changes during Extensive Learning’. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(23), 6314 -17.

Gatz, M., et al. (2007). ‘Accounting for the low relationship between education and dementia: a twin study’. Physiology and Behaviour, 92 (1-2), 232 - 7.

Verghese, J., et al. (2003). ‘Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly’. New England Journal of Medicine, 348 (25), 2508 - 16.

High Performance Talks: Dr. Aki Hintsa

High Performance Talks: Dr. Aki Hintsa

High Performance Talks is an interview series focusing on improving performance through better health and wellbeing. In ten episodes, you will hear fascinating stories from Formula One drivers, top executives, entrepreneurs, university professors and our very own Hintsa experts.

In episode 10 of our series the late Founder of Hintsa Performance, Dr. Aki Hintsa, goes through the Circle of Better Life model and discusses why wellbeing is the key to high performance. During his long medical career, Dr. Hintsa worked with several top athletes, such as runner Haile Gebrselassie and F1 Champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel as well as leaders of Fortune 500 companies. After his passing in 2016, Hintsa Performance and its team of specialist and coaches continue Dr. Hintsa’s mission to help people reach better life and better performance.

What are the first questions you ask from a client?

"Majority of the people that come to the clinic, and I ask them who you are, they say they've never thought about that. Then I also usually ask: Do you have any time for yourself? To go fishing or just walking in nature or in the mountains, or simply just time for yourself? Do you have time to think? And they reply: "No, no, no, I don't have that. Either I work or I try to invest all of the time left in my family." I think that is not healthy. We need some time for ourselves. We can give more to our families, to our children, if we are well balanced with ourselves."

What is the key to reaching better performance?

"Usually, people have a tendency to think that they have to work hard, and even harder, and then the high performance comes from there. But what I have learned from working with the top athletes of the world, is that this is not the case. As human beings, we have certain limits. First, you have to take a look at yourself and find your wellbeing. And it doesn't matter if you are a CEO or a top athlete, or whoever, the same principles are required to reach optimal performance."

Could you tell us more about the principles of the Circle of Better Life model?

"We start always from the inside, from the person's core motivations. And this may sound a little weird, but we want people to first answer to three questions: Who are you, i.e. what's your identity? What is your purpose in life, i.e. what is your real target? And then the third one – which can be very tricky nowadays – Are you in control of your life?

We are calling all of this the Core. People have to start from the inside, and after that, we go to the more practical areas. Physical activity is one area. Optimising nutrition is another – you have to find a healthy way to feed yourself. Sleep and recovery is the third area.

We also have to take care of the mechanical body. We call this area biomechanics. It's a mixture of sports science and proactive occupational health care. Due to inactive environment or inactive lifestyles, people tend to have more and more problems with their bodies. We have more and more back problems, we have problems with our joints, even early arthritis. Obesity is related to these.

The fifth area is mental energy. People have to have energy in their mental systems. This is what we believe in Hintsa. It is one of the main areas where we can develop people. Good mental energy also gives meaning to their Core and balances their social environment, family and children. The sixth element then is general health. This means that health screenings and proactivity in health issues are some of the key parameters in our system.

So there are altogether six elements, plus the Core, that we assess. And once you become one of our clients, we will go through all of these elements."

How do your clients usually start to implement changes during their Hintsa journey?

"Our clients start by changing life habits that are not doing them any good. They are learning how to lose bad habits and how to take in good habits. It's a never-ending development story when you are doing the program. But the key is, that you don't have to do it, you are free to do it. And you don't need to be perfect and you can make compromises, but your direction should be towards learning good habits all the time. Better habits then make your life more balanced. Very often people want to continue with us because they like our core philosophy: "everyone can improve, one day at a time". This is why we avoid giving you just some physical fitness programs or telling you how to get a six pack for yourself. No, no. It's a holistic wellbeing program."

What would be your one single piece of advice for improving wellbeing?

"Try to think who you really are. Try to find your own identity. Not what you are now, but what you want to be. What kind of person you want to be and then what you want to have. And be in control of your life. Steer your own vehicle. Don't be a passenger."

High Performance Talks: Adrian Sutil

High Performance Talks: Adrian Sutil

High Performance Talks is our weekly interview series focusing on improving performance through better health and wellbeing. In ten weeks, you will hear fascinating stories from Formula One drivers, top executives, entrepreneurs, university professors and our very own Hintsa experts.

In episode 9 of our series former Formula 1 driver and Formula Ford champion Adrian Sutil talks about how working with the Hintsa team changed him not just as a racing driver but as a person. Sutil began his racing career with karting at age 14. During his Formula 1 career, he was part of Spyker, Force India and Sauber teams, as well as a test driver for Midland and Williams.

How do you feel about Hintsa Performance and their method?

“It  has helped me a lot. That is why I’m a believer and why I'm behind the philosophy created by Dr. Aki Hintsa. I met Aki 5-6 years ago. After meeting him for the first time, I realised that the Hintsa model has several areas, but the most important part is to have balance in life and to be in control of your own life.”

Which part of the model has been the most important one for you?

“It’s hard to say which one is the important one, because everything is important and it's all about the philosophy as a whole. But I feel that balance is what makes us strong. If I'm really good in one area but very weak in the other, it will create certain amount of stress, and I will not reach the ultimate performance.

It is individual though. So every person needs a little bit different version of their so called Circle of Success. Some may need a little bit more recovery, others maybe a little bit more sports, but you need to find out your own body’s balance. The body will tell you.”

What was the learning that had the biggest effect on your daily life?

“There was a time when I had to ask myself what I wanted to do and what was my target. These are some difficult questions that you’re faced with when you come to the Hintsa office for the first time. When you think about it, that’s what it’s all about really – to be in control of your life. Faced with these questions, I realised that I’m not controlling my life, and that is why I was unhappy.”

And how did Hintsa’s model influence your racing?

“I started working with Dr. Hintsa a little bit later in life, so the influence on my racing was not so big. But more importantly, he influenced my whole life. I got back into Formula One in 2013. After one year break, I made it back. And I came back very successful, as a different person. So for sure Aki had a lot of influence there. I did two seasons and then I was in a different team again as a 3rd driver. Maybe I didn’t reach the pinnacle of World Champion in Formula One, but most importantly as a person I made progress, and that is what counts for me now.”

What would be your key advice for good wellbeing?

“Most important is to wake up happy in the mornings, and to be able to say: I want to do this today. Or I have to do this today, but it’s making me happy. Work shouldn't be a negative thing, work should be a good thing. If it’s not a good thing, you need to make some changes, since work is what takes most of your time. It is a question you have to answer for yourself, but I think it's an easy one. Ask yourself are you happy or are you not. If you're not, you may need some changes. But when you are in control of your life, those changes can turn positive very quickly.”