If you’re friends with a Debbie Downer type, take note: A recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggests a person’s ability to stay positive in difficult circumstances, or react negatively, is hardwired in their brain.
"It’s the first time we’ve been able to find a brain marker that really distinguishes negative thinkers from positive thinkers," Jason Moser, a psychology professor at Michigan State University who led the study, told MSU Today.
Moser and his team examined 71 women ranging in age from 18 to 35 (women were selected because they’re more likely to suffer from anxiety-related issues), with half having been previously identified as negative thinkers or worriers. Each woman viewed disturbing images, such as another woman being held at knifepoint, and were asked to think of the event in a more positive way while their brain activity was measured. (For example, being told one outcome was the woman might escape.)
The result? "The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions," Moser said. "This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively."
Telling a worrier to think positively probably isn’t going to help them, Moser said, so perhaps ask them to think about their problem in a different way.
But is negativity a bad thing? Ryan Holiday, a business strategist and author of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph, recently wrote about the importance of negative thinking for Psychology Today.
Holiday says more businesses are incorporating "premortem" strategy sessions before launching new initiatives, asking team members to brainstorm possible problems and roadblocks to success before going to market. "Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons," Holiday says.
He advocates companies have a "Chief Dissent Officer" who’s willing and able to point out problems or issues, suggesting such a person may have been able to nix Google Wave in its early development or prevent Netflix from its ill-fated attempt to divide into two companies.