Unconscious bias has become the go-to foundation for diversity training. The premise is that our biases have spent decades incubating so stereotypes are imminent. Everyone has these biases but if you recognize them, they can be “managed.” For example, you may want to ask the only woman in the room to take notes but, if you realize potential bias, you stop yourself and question your intentions. Unconscious bias efficacy studies have yielded mixed results, but, generally, people welcome the approach since it acknowledges that we are all flawed. Stereotyping is only one type of unconscious bias in the workplace. What about other unconscious biases and how do these biases interfere with your life?
Another significant bias that we rarely discuss is the negativity effect, also known as negativity bias. I am going to focus on this one in this post because it is extremely insidious. Negativity bias is the notion that we weigh negative experiences much more heavily than positive ones. Some researchers estimate that for every negative experience, a person might need five positive experiences to neutralize their attitudes. The average person needs five times more positive experiences than negative ones just to get back to equilibrium! Let’s unpack this a bit. Imagine if you are having a bad year. Nothing seems to be going right. I had a year like this. I had close family losses, felt unhappy at work and experienced many other setbacks. I lost my vibrance and was finding it was very difficult to get it back. I was confused because I had been “resilient” in the past. Looking back at it, I didn’t experience enough positive spurts to balance things out. I also see this negativity bias within clients seeking jobs. They may be experiencing difficulty returning to the workforce or feel that they are not “good enough” for the position they want.
Negativity bias also blocks us from becoming our full selves. Early on I discussed why organizations were investing in unconscious bias training. Again, the premise has been that if people are aware of their biases, they can stop stereotypes in their tracks. Unfortunately though, there is no widely administered unconscious bias training for negativity bias. So, if we are having a bad year, we may settle for the job we don’t really want, or avoid bringing our whole self to work. If cognitive dissonance takes over, you might prematurely pivot or change for no reason. Your goal may be, “I absolutely want a job in which I can bring my whole self to work” but after multiple rejections from target organizations, you may pivot and conclude that this is not as important after all. Before you know it, your life is full of negotiations and you aren’t living your truth. Negativity bias has a great deal of power!
The bottom line is that unconscious bias is always a threat so we need to constantly be mindful of devastating effects it has on us. When you are feeling negative, question if bias is the culprit and keep the 5:1 rule in mind. In these times, small positive experiences become vital.