Negativity bias – We all suffer from it.
This is the phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.
It’s hardwired: We cannot easily escape negativity bias. Research studies have shown that the human brain actually experiences stronger neural activity when reacting to negative information compared with when we are given positive information. As a result unpleasant experiences are inevitably more memorable to us than are pleasurable ones.
Why do we have it? Our negativity bias is thought to have evolved as a method for keeping ourselves and those we love out of harm’s way. Think about it like this – your chances of survival are greater if you have a natural tendency to pay more attention to things that may be harmful to you, than if you exist with a more rose-colored view of the world and attend more readily to things that are pleasurable and harmless. Missing the lethal stuff can be, well, lethal (which means that you did not stay around long enough to reproduce and pass along your rosy view of the world to your offspring). In addition to wreaking havoc on our self-esteem, the negativity bias helps to explain why humans love to gossip and why we have a tendency to remember (and sometimes repeat) negative information about others.
We tilt towards negative because it was a trait that enhanced survival. The psychological baggage and tendency to gossip came along for the ride.
Negativity bias with dogs: Negativity bias also rears its ugly head during interactions with our dogs, most commonly when owners react only to their dog’s undesirable behaviors (jumping up, chewing, barking) and ignore desirable behaviors. This mindset puts the owner into the position of having to do something to stop, change, or redirect the unwanted behavior. And yet, the same owner often neither notices nor reacts to her dog when he is sitting (not jumping), enjoying his own chew toy (not destroying the TV remote), or lying quietly (not barking). Many trainers, including myself, encourage our students to resist this tendency and focus on attending to and reinforcing the desired behaviors that their dogs offer throughout the day. However, this is a lesson that we must repeat again and again because of the negativity bias – it is our human habit to be more sensitive to negative information than positive, and this includes experiences with our dogs.
Do dogs have it? Since it is theorized that negativity bias evolved as a survival trait, we would expect to see it in other animals. So, do dogs have it? A group of researchers at the Clever Dog Lab of the University of Vienna published a recent paper that offers some clues.
The Study: The researchers were actually studying emotional contagion in dogs, a basic form of empathy in which an individual unconsciously matches the emotional state of another. Previous work has shown that dogs express emotional contagion with both other dogs and with humans. They also can show sympathetic concern, a form of empathy that is one rung up on the cognitive complexity ladder (see “I Feel Your Pain“). However, all of the previous studies with dogs have focused on their reactions to distress signals only. In this new study, the researchers wanted to determine whether dogs emotionally differentiate between vocalizations that signify distress (negative emotional state) and those that reflect happiness or joy (positive emotional state).
What they did: A group of 51 pet dogs and their owners participated in the study and were tested individually. In each session, four different acoustic (sound) recordings were played to the dog with the owner present. The test recordings included positive and negative human vocalizations (laughing and crying, respectively) and positive and negative dog vocalizations (play barks and isolation whines, respectively). The control recording was sounds recorded from the dogs’ natural environment. During the testing, dogs were off-lead and allowed to roam freely in the room while the owner sat quietly in a chair, reading a magazine (i.e. not interacting with the dog). The dog’s behavioral responses to each sound recording were videotaped and analyzed.
What they found: The design of this study allowed the researchers to compare dogs’ responses when exposed to recordings of both humans and dogs and when they heard vocalizations that expressed positive (laughing, play barks) or negative (crying, whining) emotions:
- Presence of emotional contagion (empathy): When exposed to any of the four types of emotional sounds, the dogs became more attentive to the direction of the sound, moved toward the sound, approached their owner, and showed signs of arousal. They did not react in this way to the control sounds.
- Dogs paid more attention to negative information than to positive information: When they heard sounds of either a human crying or a dog whining, the dogs froze in place more often, remained immobile for longer periods, and showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog. Species did not matter – the dogs were more sensitive to distress sounds than they were to happy sounds. They also “matched” the negative emotions with their own stress, with both humans and other dogs.
- Negativity bias? In addition to these data showing that dogs are capable of distinguishing between positive and negative vocalizations and reacting accordingly, they suggest the presence of a negativity bias in dogs, similar to what we experience as humans. The authors state: “…it is plausible that the contagious effect of negative emotions, which indicate aversive or dangerous situations, affect others’ behavioral responses more than positive ones“.
Take Away for Dog Folks: The dog training implications of these results are pretty obvious. After all, we know that the fallout of living with negativity bias is not pleasant. Evolutionary benefits aside, this is a bias that most humans would be happy to be rid of.
Knowing that dogs are naturally more sensitive to negative information (and emotions) than to positive and also knowing that dogs react to the negative emotions of others with stress, then it is a no-brainer to conclude that we should avoid aversives when we train and interact with our dogs. There are of course many reasons that we should focus on positive reinforcement and reduce or eliminate the use of aversives in training. This research just adds one more – negative emotions (harsh voice, hard stares, anger) emotionally bleed into our dogs and cause them to be unhappy and stressed. Not only are they aware of these emotions in us, they may be more sensitive to them than we have previously realized.
Like us, dogs may suffer from the fallout of negativity bias.
Cited Study: Huber A, Barber ALA, Farago T, Muller CA, Huber L. Investigating emotional contagion in dogs (Canis familiaris) to emotional sounds of humans and conspecifics. Animal Cognition 2017′ 20:703-715.
Read more about dog cognition, behavior and training in Linda Case’s new book, “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog” (2018)