Negativity bias in gay men – why our brain doesn’t care if we’re happy

I was reminded this week in a conversation of how many of us as gay/ bi /trans men can fear going into groups of queer men. In theory going to be with a group of other men like us should seem like a haven but the old trauma of joining a group of men and being rejected by them runs deep and can colour our perception of going to a social event. Instead the fear of being rejected can overwhelm any excitement of going to a new event and prevent us from going.

Why might this happen? The reason is rooted deep in our brain, and in a behaviour pattern known as negativity bias. When our ancestors lived in a world where a decision might be life threaten it was important to make choices that exposed us to the least danger so the brain became primed to look for a threat and avoid it. Negatvity bias is the imprint this pattern of decision making has left in our brain. We are primed to look out for threats, and anything our brain sees as threatening it will do all that it can to stop us from moving towards making that choice. As part of this it will store and remember memories of negative events to refer back to again and again. In contrast if something is not a threat and is enjoyable it is quickly ignored and forgotten. Dr. Rick Hanson, who created the term negativity bias, describes what the brain does in this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity.”

Why do we stay stuck doing things that make us unhappy? 

These days the impact negativity bias does not mean simply not going into a cave because a bear might be sleeping in there, or not eating an unknown fruit because it might be poisonous, it takes on more subtle forms. We may hate our job, but on trying to move to a new job the brain sees all the danger of leaving the familiar and so convinces us to stay for just a little more time….until that little more becomes years. We may want to make new friends and feel lonely, but if the brain sees meeting others as a threat then it will convince us to stay at home. The brain does not care if we are miserable and lonely and stuck in a job we hate….as far as it is concerned it has done its job and we are still alive.

Why as gay/ bi/ trans men might we fear groups of men?

For so many of us our first experience of men in groups was at school. For me it was being the boy always left till last when the football teams were picked, the boy who was ostracised as we waited in a line for the coach at the end of the school day that would take us back to our village. Every night I would have to stand with a group of boys who did not like me, did not speak to me, and only spoke to insult me or tell me I was gay. Five years of being rejected, ignored and insulted. And I know I am not alone here. But as a boy I felt alone, the only one, cast out from that male group. This experience is what has been described as minority stress and gave rise to my original trauma of fearing groups of men.

Now as an adult when I think to go to a male environment – a club or a workshop – my first feeling is not one of excitement, but dread. The negativity bias is kicking in, registering that I am about to go into a situation that the brain has stored as a potential source of threat. On seeing this the brain will start to do its best to make me avoid this potential danger – there will be feelings of dread, of anxiety, and self talk such as “no-one will talk to me”, “why should I go I’ll just feel awkward and have nothing to say”…”it’s better I don’t go”. It’s no wonder so many gay events also involve alcohol as a way of reducing this dread.

If I listen to this negativity bias I’ll do what the programme is designed to do, and choose to stay at home. But I’ll also miss out on all the opportunities the social event may have offered. And I miss out on being able to see that this old programme is based on data that is not reliable. So often if I go to an event I’ll get talking to people, make a new friend or simply enjoy my time there and leave feeling great. And if I am ignored or feel awkward….it doesn’t destroy me, I just realise this isn’t my social group and I focus back on the connections that do nurture me. But it’s only by exploring and trying new things that I can expand this network and nurture it.



How To Challenge Negativity Bias

Recognising that this fear is really my ancient reptilian survival strategy playing out is the first stage in challenging these thoughts.  It’s so powerful to look at this process and say to the brain: “thank you for trying to keep me safe, but you can take a break, it’s going to be ok for me to go”.To challenge the Casandra like chatter of negativity bias requires mindfulness and self-compassion. Mindfulness allows you to recognise what is going on, name it and choose other ways of responding to the stimulus of anxiety and fear. Negativity bias acts as a magnet for all the memories that will confirm its hypothesis. It draws together every memory of being rejected, feeling awkward or of not enjoying an event. What our brain does not do so easily is store and recover memories of positive events. In fact we need to take 15 seconds of consciously noting a positive event for it to go into our long term memory. Whereas a threatening event gets stored immediately. So when you do have an enjoyable experience of arriving at a social event and being greeted and getting into a conversation take a few moment to fully register that. Your brain will simply observe it and say “friendly face, non threatening conversation….this person is not going to kill me, no need to do anything or remember this…” In tis pleasant situation you need to feel  fully the sense of ease and enjoyment and let it sink in. For this reason it may be harder to remember positive experiences from the past, but if you really focus your attention you may be able to counter the negative memories and thoughts about why you should not goto the event with pleasant memories of when social events went well. The more you register a pleasant event as it is happening the easier it will be to store these memories and return to them at a latter date.

If you are noticing negativity bias at work then you will very likely also be present to feelings of anxiety and fear. To meet these you can choose to do a self-compassion practice. I led a meditation on this theme earlier this week and on how to bring healing to anxiety. Use the link below to access the meditation.

As we continue through Pride month and venues are opening up again there will be a lot more opportunities to go out and meet in groups. Notice if you have any resistance to this and reflect on whether this may be negativity bias at work and how you might challenge it so you are left free to make a choice that will nurture you.

For more ideas on how to challenge negativity bias click here.

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