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Why Negativity Bias Is No Bad Thing When It Comes To Learning Design

Blog posts | 06.04.2022

Jessica Harms

Senior Learning Designer at Kineo US

When I was little, my mum used to make these amazing spinach balls as an appetiser for Christmas. Until one Christmas I ate so many spinach balls, I was physically ill. From then on, thinking about, smelling, or trying to eat the spinach balls made me nauseous. 

Have you ever experienced something similar? Maybe you ate a bad clam or devoured too many sweets? 

This reaction comes from a primitive part of our brain: the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to determine whether something is a threat. In my case, because the spinach balls made me ill, my brain determined they are a threat.

Image of a model of the human brain

We can trace this reaction back to our hunter-gatherer days, where knowing what to eat or not eat was a matter of life and death. Our brains developed a “negativity bias,” which means human brains are more likely to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information. The more we can remember negative events, the greater the likelihood that we can avoid the threat in the future and increase our chance of survival. Negative emotions, like fear and sadness, are more closely linked to our memory than positive emotions, like happiness. 

The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, and like Teflon for positive ones. For example, you are more likely to remember more clear details of an event filled with negative emotion (JFK’s assassination, 9/11, a personal event of sadness or fear), than an event filled with positive emotion, like birthdays and anniversaries. 

Which is why as learning designers, we often use the brain’s negativity bias to increase learning retention by focusing on stories of consequences and negative emotions instead of stories of success and positive emotions. We simply know that our learners will be more drawn in and more motivated by the negative! We could write a positive story like this: 

“Raquel arrives in Vietnam and enables 'protected mode' on her laptop. She settles into her hotel room to Google the perfect beach to visit after she rocks her presentation tomorrow.” 

But that’s a pretty boring story that doesn’t stick in our memory, right? So instead, we boost retention and engagement by tapping into the amygdala with a story like this: 

“After settling into her hotel room in Vietnam, Raquel dreams about visiting the local beaches and begins scrolling through pictures of the turquoise waters on her work laptop. An unfamiliar pop-up window appears, followed by another, and another, until the steady stream covers her entire screen. Raquel tries not to panic as she envisions losing tomorrow’s presentation, so she pulls up IT on her phone and reads: ‘Enable 'protected mode' on all devices when traveling abroad.’ Raquel’s stomach drops - she can’t remember enabling 'protected mode'.” 

In the second story, threat and negative emotion engaged the amygdala. By triggering the amygdala, we increased the importance of this information and reduced the time it takes for the information to go into our long-term memory. This is why sharing the risks and consequences is an important part of any training. 

Keep an eye out for more coming up on the science of learning, and feel free to get in touch if you want to know more about how we build effective learning experiences for clients.

Jessica Harms

Senior Learning Designer at Kineo US

Jess makes people's jobs easier by designing training using the latest behavioural and cognitive science to build confidence and competence. Combining her experience as an award-winning educator and theatrical director, Jess reimagines learning by focusing on how the learner will feel to create more 'aha' moments.