He was cute—really cute. A mop of dark hair with the sweetest brown eyes. For weeks, my friend talked about her new coworker, the one who asked if she wanted to meet after work sometime.
The date was set for a Friday on a Tuesday. From Tuesday on, *Samantha could barely sleep or eat.
“I’m so nervous. What do I wear? What if he only meant for us to get together as friends? What do I say? What if he changes his mind and isn’t attracted to me?”
The day finally arrived. I assumed I wouldn’t hear from Samantha until later that night. But Samantha called me before the sun even set.
“Yeah,” Samantha said. Her voice made me think of tires losing air. “I’m not attracted to him.”
“He’s not much of a conversationalist. I tried to engage him. He was so boring.”
“Back it up sister, you thought he was so cute. What happened?”
“He took off his mask.”
We may not be in Samantha’s shoes, but we have certainly all experienced what psychologists refer to as negative bias. Our brains receive external information and literally wire the positive and negative input into different hemispheres.
“Negative emotions generally involve more thinking…information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events—and use stronger words to describe them-than happy ones.” (Stanford Professor, Clifford Nass)
So, while Samantha was thrilled that the cute guy at her office asked her on a date, her brain was flooded with its Mad Libs’ tendency to fill-in-the-blank what ifs with worst case scenarios. Her brain’s negative bias created a rush of worrisome thoughts that manifested in difficulty sleeping and a loss of appetite.
I had my own negative bias: when Samantha called me when she was meant to be on the date, my brain did its own Mad Libs negative bias: Did “cute guy” stand her up? Did he do something inappropriate? Is she in danger?
The idea that Samantha just might have decided to end the date early didn’t occur to my brain.
But what about how “really cute” Samantha’s coworker was? There’s negative bias there, too. Afterall, a good portion of her worry stemmed from a fear that “really cute” guy wouldn’t find her attractive. So, her brain took the meager view one third of a man’s face and made him a Greek god, out of her league, aesthetically “above” her.
It’s important to realize that it was Samantha’s brain creating the Mad Libs in the genre of a horror movie. It’s also important to remember the brain is an organ—no different than the lungs or kidneys. The brain has specific functions just as our bodies’ other organs, but it need not define us.
So, knowing our brain is wired toward the mental gymnastics of negative bias, what can we do? The Buddhist monk, Henepola Gunarantana suggests a compassionate reckoning of sorts with yourself:
“Somewhere in this process [self-analysis], you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels, barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way, and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The real difference is that you have confronted the situation they have not.”
Becoming mindful, cultivating self-awareness—including our brain’s hardwired tendency to focus on the negative, is actually the key to mental freedom. The challenge isn’t our negative thoughts; the challenge is remembering that we can choose not to believe them; the challenge is remembering we are not our thoughts.