Why we expect the worst
A primal survival skill is unnecessary now that we are a top-tier predator. Negative bias is now the predator within.
It’s 8:04 a.m. and you’re late, but feeling refreshed after a relaxing weekend with family and friends – it couldn’t be better.
Settling down to your desk, the boss calls you into her office.
Unpleasant thoughts begin to swirl.
“I am four minutes late, again… That proposal I handed in on Friday could have used another edit, and some more research to back it up… The company is looking to cut costs…” and so on.
A great sinking feeling washes over you, expecting the worst.
You look to your desk and wonder what you need for this meeting. Just your coffee? Note pad? The proposal? A lawyer?
You sit down in the office, and scan for an expression on your boss’s face.
She says how happy she is with your proposal (you wait for the bad news).
“Thrilling ideas,” she says, “It’s well backed-up with the right research. Good enough to go upstairs with a few edits.”
But, she says she noticed you were at the office until 7 p.m. on Friday completing it. She appreciates the initiative, but wants you to finish your work in the time allotted.
You thank her, and leave to do the edits.
What was your one take-away from this unexpected meeting?
“I’m too slow getting this work out, and the boss has made note of it. If I can’t pick up the pace, be more efficient, I will be a casualty of the next cuts.”
You sit at your desk trying to focus on the edits, but can’t fight off the swirling thoughts that you aren’t more productive during work hours. Ironically, this battle of thoughts is actually making you unproductive.
This is an extremely common reaction.
In fact, this “negative bias” is part of our natural evolution, something that’s deeply engrained in our survival.
When we started walking upright on the plains of Ethiopia, we are a soft, slow moving and defenceless snack for several predators. We had a few things going for us: prehensile thumbs, a developing brain, and the ability to draw deeply from past experience and project that into the future.
We also developed this negative bias, which has kept us alive.
Imagine a sound in the bushes nearby. This could be any number of things, from a branch falling to a small, harmless animal. Or it could be a dangerous hyena, or a tiger.
We could flee, or ignore it.
Doing the former, we would survive nearly every time. If we guessed wrong on the latter, we would no longer live to carry on our species.
So, our brains are wired to assume the worst for very primal and important reasons.
That said, we don’t live in that world any more. And assuming the worst is causing us angst, and worse, stress-related disorders, such as chronic anxiety, depression, ulcers, and overwhelm at work and at home.
When we fall into these frightening narratives, several things happen to us physiologically, emotionally and mentally, and not one of them is good.
There is hope for us.
The way to quiet these thoughts is to simply recognize them only as thoughts, just a story you are telling yourself that you don’t know to be true.
You won’t catch all of them at first, it takes work.
But catch one, or maybe two one day, then the habit of recognizing thoughts begins to catch on.
Soon, these thoughts begin to lose their power of you, and you will no longer be governed by them.
Other things we can do is make sure we’re getting enough sleep, exercise, and making the right food choices.
In addition, when we notice ourselves falling into the narrative, be kind to ourselves about being drawn into our own story.
It took us millions of years to hone this survival skill. It will take a short while to unlearn it.