Neuroscientists Find That It's Easier to Be a Pessimist

The brain is quicker to judge something as negative, because it’s easier than reframing to positive thinking.

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Oct 23 2018, 4:47pm

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“I need to talk to you about something.”

Does that phrase make your mind leap to the worst possible conclusion, or do you feel open and optimistic about the surprise to come?

If you’re someone who reacts with the latter, I need you to be my life coach—just typing that hypothetical sentence made my stomach sink. But if you're pessimistic like me and immediately assume the worse a new study suggests we have our lazy brains to thank.

A team of researchers, led my Maital Neta at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, used MRI brain scans to explore how people react to expressions of uncertainty, and found that a negative response is faster and easier than a positive one.

Their work is published in the September issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience .

The researchers asked 51 participants to look at photos of happy, angry, and surprised faces, and rate each image as positive or negative. This gave the researchers an idea of how these individuals viewed these reactions, in general. A week later, those participants were called back for a follow-up session inside an MRI scanner, and viewed fearful, surprised, and neutral faces. For some of the sets of images, they were asked to either maintain their original impressions of the faces, or reframe their responses to be more positive. How parts of the brain responded to each task illuminated how well they were able to reframe their thinking.

The researchers found that the brain reaches for negative responses faster and more easily than positive reactions, especially in younger people. As we get older, we typically become better able to appraise when something is actually negative, or just uncertain—but only if we’ve learned to regulate that knee-jerk negativity. People with stronger connections between the amygdala and other areas of the brain had a more positive reaction to uncertainty, because they were able to better reframe the images' meanings.

“People that seem to learn to be able to see these things as positive are learning to override that first negative response, probably in much the same way we learn to control or regulate our emotions as we become adults,” Neta told me in an email. “We’ve also seen that older adults have a more positive interpretation of these images, and we think that’s, at least in part, because they are really motivated to focus on the good things and ignore (for lack of a better word) the potential bad things in their world. Of course if something is clearly bad, they can’t ignore it... but in these situations where it could be good, they choose to focus on that.”

Neta told me that the team hopes that out of this study, people might learn to see things from a variety of perspectives. Not everyone has the same reactions to the same circumstances, even if the response seems obvious.

“We hope people learn that they can see things in a more positive light,” Neta said. “If they take the time to consider the options and don’t just go with their faster or more immediate response, they may learn to see the other side of the coin. So if you’re not happy with your own emotional responses or experiences, you can learn to change them... but it just might take some time.”