• Linda Buchanan, Ph.D.

Is Your Glass Half Full or Half Empty?



After looking at the photos above, did you notice which one you gazed at the longest or which one caught your attention the fastest? If you’re like most people it was the picture of the bear. This is due to biology and is often times referred to as the negativity bias. This phenomenon has been extensively researched in many different cultures and contexts. If you want to learn more just Google the term “negativity bias”.

My clients have often heard me say that it’s more important to our brain to know where the bear lives than where the flowers grow.  If you're walking in the woods and a bear jumps out, most of your brain will immediately be activated to enable your safety. All of the centers of the brain related to fight or flight as well as emotion and memory will be instantly engaged. You need to be able to act without thinking and to never forget where you encountered this bear. It is fundamentally important that we have this ability!


However, in highly anxiety provoking situations, you're prefrontal lobes are not activated. In fact they go off line so to speak. You don't need to be able to pause and ponder what's happening or consider alternative courses of actions and their consequences. You just have to run! The prefrontal lobes are what differentiates us from other animals. They enable us to reflect on our selves, to ponder what is important, and what makes us happy as well as the ability to feel gratitude. They are engaged primarily when we are fairly calm.


Thus, if you're walking along and notice some beautiful flowers, you are much less likely to feel deeply or store this into your memory even if you love flowers. Researchers have even found that when comparing negative emotions to positive emotions of equal intensity, the negative emotions still grab attention faster and hold it longer. So, unless you're running from a bear, this really stinks! Thus, the negativity bias can have very detimental effects.


Imagine the effects that this bias has on your daily mood. Your brain is constantly scanning the environment for negative or dangerous input. This is why at the end of the day you are likely to remember the one negative thing that happened and, if it was bad enough, have trouble going to sleep. This occurs even if you had an overall positive day. You are much less likely to ruminate over the positives.

There is a YouTube video in which the makers of the video screen the movie Mary Poppins for any images or phrases that could be construed as negative (be aware, if you are a Mary Poppins fan, you might find this a little disturbing) . It’s called Scary Mary and you can see it here. These are actual images in the movie but when taken out of context seem very negative.  Although unsettling, this is what we often do to ourselves on a daily basis. We can take a neutral or even positive day and bring out the scariest parts of it.

In summary, most of us have a glass half empty mentality as we are geared to notice the negative much more intently and for a longer period of time than the positive. Your brain will naturally focus on and remember negative things that occur. However, it takes conscious awareness and effort (prefrontal lobe functions) to remember the positives. This is why we have a stronger reaction to a criticism than a compliment. If you want to find contentment, you will have to work to overcome your negativity bias and pay more attention to each positive thing as it occurs in your day. Don’t worry so much about learning from the negative, your brain is already wired to do that for you. Pause now to consider something positive that has happened in your day and repeat it to yourself several times. This wil increase the likelihood that you will experience the day you actually had!


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4536 Barclay Drive

Dunwoody, GA 30338

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Walden  Behavioral Care

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© 2019 by Linda Buchanan PhD.   Website by Nancy Steffke.