Beware the Deadly Vending Machine

tigerAsk any author to summarize a book review that’s 95 percent positive, and the author will probably lead with the half a sentence of criticism, or the one phrase that wasn’t stellar praise. This is an example of a well documented phenomenon of the human brain called the negativity bias. We focus on bad news, accord it more weight than good news, recall it faster and in greater detail.

tooth fairyThe negativity bias is easy to explain. The cave man or woman who treated every rustling in the bushes as a potential saber-toothed tiger lived longer than their neighbor, who anticipated only the Tooth Fairy lurking in the undergrowth.

But not a lot longer. When average life expectancy was less than 35 years, problems such as heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and arthritis were the fate of only the privileged few. And yet, if you live in a constant state of upset because the modern equivalent of saber toothed tigers are pouncing at you from the newspapers, the high stress job, the commute, the finances, and everywhere in between, then the down side of the negativity bias becomes obvious. Our long term health goes utterly to pot when our panic responses are hammered constantly.

vending machineWe’re scared of ebola, right? It’s a nasty, awful virus, but the fact is, in the US, you’re more likely to die of a vending machine falling over on you than of ebola (as of this writing there has been one fatality in the US from ebola). We’re scared of another financial crisis, of the wrong people getting into office next month, of viruses, big government, big business, and having big behinds.

The neuroscientists and neuropsychologists have taken their theories in an interesting direction: Have we created a jungle full of saber-toothed tigers, both real and imagined (treat the Tooth Fairy like she’s your deadly enemy, and she just might treat you the same way), because we’ve only recently understood how stuck in the past our brain chemistry is? The media, politicians, law enforcement, and much of the financial industry rely on our negativity bias, as does, indirectly, the health care industry. How will that infrastructure stay in business if we don’t jump every time they report to us that the bushes are rustling?

tiger under umbrellaNow for the good news: The negativity bias can be overcome. If you persistently focus on what’s positive, good, encouraging, reassuring, and happy in life, your brain settles down. The negativity bias is still wired into your circuits, but it’s not running your life even when you’re trying to catch a good night’s sleep. As your stress levels drop, your long term health outcomes improve.

dude you gotta protect meBad news is bad news, and should be taken seriously and dealt with. Nonetheless, a steady diet of fear, mayhem, and anxiety is first of all, a misrepresentation of reality for most of us, and secondly, likely to kill us all a lot sooner than any saber-toothed tigers.

So how do you stay positive? How do you unplug from the negativity noise and smell the abundantly blooming roses? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amex gift card.



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37 comments on “Beware the Deadly Vending Machine

  1. Everyone has their hot button, and I’m no exception. There are certain things that really scare me and I’m more likely to worry about those. But when I hear things like the Ebola scare, I take the time to research the facts and when I realize it’s nothing to be too concerned with right now, I let it go. If there is a situation that I might need to be worried about, I think about what I can do about it right now, and if there’s nothing, I try to let it go and decide I’ll deal with it when there’s something I can do about it. I do try to think about all the positives in my life when things aren’t going so well, that usually calms me right down.

    • “I let it go,” is a powerful phrase Barbara, and it says you’ve learned to manage all the neural circuitry screaming at you to pay attention to only the troublesome stuff. Meditation is one way to tame the negativity tiger, and–exactly as you do–so is focusing on what’s positive.

  2. Well, one way is to literally unplug, pour a cup of coffee, go sit on the porch and smell those roses.

    Actually, at my age (70) I think I’m able to see things in a clearer light. Things don’t seem to affect me quite as much as they did when I was younger.

    However, I can still do a rant about TV news. It is so awful!! What bothers me even more than the negativity is the stupidity! Cable news is the worst. You have your two hate filled propaganda stations from opposite ends of the political spectrum going at each other all the time, so I don’t even waste my time on them. The rest of the cable new stations and the network news station also are just dumb. They have all become tabloid news dealing with issues in the most superficial manner. The only ones I can give any good marks to are BBC, Aljazeera, and Public Broadcasting.

    Whew! Thanks for letting me get that off my chest (smile).

    • Could not have ranted it better myself, Mary T, and it’s scary. A well informed voting public is the bedrock of effective democracy, and somewhere along the way, the media abdicated its responsibility to truth in favor of its lust for profit and ratings.

      Uh-oh, but then there’s the internet, whom nobody entirely owns… And then there’s your strategy: Don’t watch the propaganda networks. Think for yourself.

      Marvelous notion!

      • I don’t own a TV and I seldom ever watch it when I’m out somewhere like a hospital waiting room, I’d rather read. I get my little bit of news from the radio, occasionally the newspaper, and even less often from the internet. I think if more people would unplug their TV that we’d be happier as a whole because we wouldn’t be sitting like mindless lumps watching useless shows. When I had a TV my preferred channel was PBS because I refused to pay the outrageous charges Time Warner wants.

  3. There has been a lot of negative news lately. Sometimes, it’s a bit overwhelming to see the stories on the news over and over again and posted on social media. UGH!

    I do not watch tv in the morning or listen to news radio. I can catch up with the news driving into work or at 11pm. I don’t watch a lot of tv for the same reason. I have subscribed to a few local newspapers on Twitter and I can catch up on the local news quickly and easily .

    I take my dogs for a walk, enjoy a cup of coffee with my older dog on the back deck or read. I focus on the positives or make a to do list. I enjoy the quiet. 🙂

  4. I ditched my TV a number of years ago, which helped considerably in shutting down the negativity bias. I do still read headlines and the occasional news story online, but like Barbara, when a story proves to be worth more attention, I’ll try to find more balanced reporting and more useful information than fear-mongering headlines.

    Aside from that, I’ve found that spending more time walking around my town and connecting with other people brings me into more examples of the positive — whether it’s seeing other people in good moods or learning about others contributing to the community in positive ways or being able to be the sunshine in someone else’s life. I think once you tap into life on a smaller, more local scale, a lot of those bigger fears lose some of their grip.

    • Maybe this is part of why I like Scotland so much. The whole place is no bigger than South Carolina, with not many more people than South Carolina. There’s a cozy quality to it, despite all the variety in geography, history, and dialect.

      As for the TV… haven’t owned one since college. Probably the best single decision I’ve made for my physical and mental health.

  5. I look at the newspaper and skip over ALL the articles talking about rape, murder, and other assorted crimes. I know that bad news sells, but for me I want the nugget talking about the boy scout who saved a life or the couple celebrating 60 years of marriage. That leaves two articles to read and the comics. Does this leave me less than well-informed -perhaps, at the same time I am in touch with many people and learn what is important that way. I refuse to be sucked down by negativity!

    • Martha, there’s a news outfit on the web called upworthy that has a lot of positive articles, though they have their soapboxes too. The good news seems to stand a better chance of getting out on the internet, which is encouraging.

  6. Like most of the ladies commenting on here today, I too don’t watch TV. We have one but it’s mostly used for movies and Netflix. I do here a little news from the radio station I listen to in my van, but it’s not much and usually just the most important things going on in the world. And there are of course the headlines that also pop up on my computers home screen and if I feel it is important I will research the info myself before making a hasty decision one way or the other on the subject.
    I used to be a worrier years ago before I was married or had kids but having kids has changed my perspective on a lot of things. I don’t want them worrying about things we have no control over like I used to and sometimes still do so I try to stay as positive as I can.
    The things keeping me awake at night are usually just thoughts on what I can do about situations concerning my boys or I’m thinking up book plots. There are a lot of things I used to be afraid of and worry about, but once I realized it didn’t do me any good and I really had no control over those things, the fear and negativity went away.
    I still think of worst case scenarios when it comes to doing something new with the boys and more often than not things go a lot better than I planned for. I think with special needs it’s a little different and sometimes you do have to plan for the worst where they are concerned and then when the worst doesn’t happen you are so happy with the small things that did because it could have been so much worse. Where as my husband has these perfect scenarios built up in his head and when a drink gets spilled out at a restaurant he thinks things went poorly, where as I am proud of the boys for staying in their seats and that only one glass got knocked over. So my husband and I come out of the situation with two different perspectives on what really happened.

    • Sarah, you raise a good point: It’s one thing to spin the anxiety wheel, another to plan and manage and get the risks down to manageable level. More of the second can mean a lot less of the first.

      And yes, the books are a comfort even before you write them… they’re also a lot of fun to write. Just sayin’.

  7. I come from a long line of worriers and have been working on that for a long time. In some things I have mellowed and hopefully the older I get the more mellow I can become. I know the media is a big factor = it seems like bad news is the only news or at least the only thing they want to talk about and since I’m on the computer a lot I get it there too. Reading has always been my salvation. It is the one thing that can stop my brain and let’s me forget and I do it every night before going to sleep.

    • Ditto on the reading. For years I limited myself to one book a day, and now I generally have three going at once–a craft book, a historical reference, and a work of genre fiction. What abundance!

  8. I don’t watch the news, because it’s all depressing. I’m finding a lot of Twitter is depressing now though, so I need to figure out how to limit that while still finding out about new books

    • I’m very fussy about who I follow, Make Kay. I’m also ruthless about what I allow into my facebook feed. A very few rants, and somebody gets the old “I don’t want to see this.” I do like that social media lets us do that…

  9. The ability to balance between hyper-awareness and burying my head in the sand is a ongoing challenge. I love to read, to learn, to discuss and all of those things lead to awareness of the ills of the world. I literally have three steps I’ve taken to limit the stress.

    1. Three Stars, One Wish: a trick I learned in my education degree that addresses what you said about remembering the bad more easily than the good. When giving feedback, there needs to three “good” for every “bad” … Three things the child is a star about, and one thing you wish for them to improve upon. If I find myself drooling on negative thoughts, or reading something depressing, i try really hard to find three positives to help balance it out.

    2. Like others – NO TV. I choose carefully where I get my news and avoid fear mongering sites like the plague they are. And like above, I read uplifting, human interest stories more than negative, sometimes solution-less ones.

    3. People. Connecting with people who I care about and who care about me is a sure fire way to annoyed getting too caught up in this craziness of my overactive mind. They help me keep an even keel.

    Ultimately, I stay aware – of the situations in the world & my life AND of my limitations in resolving them.

  10. For one thing, I don’t have a TV, so I don’t see or hear anything…that’s the same with newspapers not in my home…If I do see anything it’s through FB…but, I am blessed with friends who don’t post negative comments or share anything negative…if I do heard something from my husband, I research it on Google…fear, mayhem, and anxiety is a part of my life due to my family, so I am involved in their lives as little as possible, sad to say…because I do love them and miss them all…music is how I unplug from the negativity.

  11. I hadn’t realized until recently just how negative I have become so this blog really spoke to me. I’m trying to do the “if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything” but it doesn’t always work no matter how hard I try. I’m so thankful that I now have a laptop because I seem to be paying more attention to my posts on Facebook before I hit the enter key, several times I have deleted something simply because it didn’t need to be said.

    As for staying positive I try and do that by spending time with my daughter and grandchildren. I’ve started taking the grands out individually so we have some one on one time though that doesn’t always work out. The last time I wanted to take out my grandson his sister who is closest in age looked so sad that I took her also and took their 10 year old sister so I didn’t have to cope with a toddler and a young child alone. Next time it will be one on one time though because he deserves it like his older sisters.

    I’ve also got my cats, my books, and my computer, and the games I’ve downloaded to it.

    As for Ebola, it doesn’t worry me all that much for the simple fact that I know it’s spread by bodily fluids and I tend to stay well away from people who look or act like they may be physically ill. I have chronic health problems which cause me to have a compromised immune system. Because of this I’ll be staying home more in the future since more people seem to become ill in the fall and winter.

    The cats however can be a pain in the backside at times. I just had to stop typing this post in the middle of a sentence to go right my kitchen trash can and pick up what spilled out after they knocked it over.

    • I’m getting an unexpected day out tomorrow with my oldest granddaughter. She just called and asked me if I would take her to Walmart tomorrow so she can find a black skirt or pair of pants to wear to her baby sister’s memorial service on Tuesday.

      • A baby sister’s memorial service sounds very sad, Molly. Condolences to you and your entire family. I don’t think the shopping trip is about the clothes, I think it’s about spending time with Grandma when big challenges loom. Smart kid.

  12. I try to end every day on an upbeat note. I call it my “moment of gratitude”. After I finish my bedtime reading (loving What a lady needs for Christmas”, I put my book down and think of the good things that happened that day. Maybe a long distance call from my daughter; maybe a lovely walk in the fresh air, a visit with a friend. Some days there are many things I am grateful for, some days I have to think really hard to find even one.

    But I try to do this every night.

    I like to think that it really clears my head before I try to fall asleep. I still find myself dwelling over bad things as I try to fall asleep, but I try to pull myself back into “gratitudes”.

    • Excellent move, and the longer you linger with that sense of gratitude, with the details and sensory aspects of the positive experience, the more likely it is to shape your neural connections. Wallow in the good things, and your brain gets better at spotting them in the first place. Wallow in the bad things….

  13. My husband stays in a state of panic. He is positive we are going to be homeless any moment. We have been in our house for 14 years. We have never missed a house payment. But facts really don’t seem to help. I guess it has to do with attitude.
    If I am traveling and there is a problem, there is really nothing I can do. As long as I have something to read, food, water, and a bathroom near by. I’m good. Life happens, it is how you respond to it, that matters.

    • OH, the challenges of team work. He doubtless points out to you that his very OCD focus is why you’ve never missed a house payment, which simplistic reasoning has the unfortunate effect of casting his anxiety as a life saving necessity.


  14. Oh gosh – I shunt the negative Nellie/Ned’s to a seperate news feed on FB so I don’t see it. I turn on the weather report first thing then shut the nasty thing off. Pour my coffee and read a book or walk outside and see the sun…Gosh the News Media has fallen to an all time LOW! Raido and Newspapers are no better. To stay informed, I do hear the “headlines”, but then after 5 minutes I am done, done, done….I guess I have to agree with Barbara, I have learned to “let it go”.

    • Another approach mentioned by a friend recently–if he wants the news, he skims the article and focuses on the comments, were people who actually KNOW something will tell you what the journalist didn’t–provided you can also skim the ranters. Interesting approach, and one I’m giving a try.

  15. Some days it is harder than others to let go of the bad. On the more stressful days I do avoid watching a lot of news (or news type) shows, they rarely have anything positive. Live a friend said the other day “23 hours a day is not enough time to focus on important things like Ebola” Yes, she was being sarcastic.

    So I handle the negativity by unplugging (maybe it is avoidance) from media and focusing on the good things I’ve got: my husband, my kids, my pets, my friends; and of course by reading good books and listening to whatever music I’m in the mood for to destress.

  16. I have to say that I am still focused on the beginning of this article, about the reviews. I was an actress for many years. I cannot quote any of my good reviews, although I really had some nice ones, but I can recite to you WORD FOR WORD the bad ones, going back to college in 1973, when a reviewer commented on my–well–breasts….