Back in the teacher’s room you quickly scan through the stickies filled with learners’ comments and the feedback overall is super positive: “I enjoyed the activity”, “I learnt how to self-correct my writing”, “it was cool to team-write.” But there is one different comment “I didn’t learn anything and your lesson was boring.” Whilst your colleagues tell you to ignore that it, for some reason on your way home only that one negative comment keeps spinning around in your head…. even though there were 25 positive ones! Does this sound familiar?


What is negativity bias?

We all experience it. It doesn’t matter if you are a novice or an experienced teacher, if you are a teacher trainer, author or lecturer at university. We’ve all been there, I’m sure. Even though most comments on our work might be positive, it always seems to be the one comment from Debbie Downer or Negative Nancy that we typically seem to remember more.

There is even a word for this which shows you how common this phenomenon is: negativity bias. It refers to the fact that we seem to more readily notice and dwell on negative comments or, as Mercer and Gregersen (2020, p.135) put it, negative bias is “the tendency to pay more attention to adverse experiences as opposed to positive ones.”  



Negativity bias can influence our thoughts, our emotions, our beliefs about ourselves and our behaviour. Although we all experience it at times, how it impacts us and what it does to our self-confidence might differ.

But we all must deal with the same old tricky brain which has developed throughout human evolution to be on the look out for any threats to our survival. Now, you might wonder what this has got to do with a negative comment someone made on your lesson?


Why do we experience negativity bias?

Well, the way our brain has developed is the reason we might struggle to silence our negative thoughts coming from – in this case- that one negative comment. Our amazing brain is hardwired to zoom in on experiences that can pose an immediate danger to our survival. So, our brain might interpret that one negative comment as a danger of being rejected by the tribe, our learners.



Millions of years ago, when we had lions and tigers roaming around freely, being expelled from the tribe, because we were no longer seen, for example, as a good teacher, meant we would be out on our own in the wilderness and have to fend for ourselves. This scenario is of course far from ideal for our survival, since we all know that being part of the tribe offers protection and increases our chances of surviving the wilderness.

Whilst negativity bias was -and still is- an amazing and essential survival mechanism, the fact that our brain prioritises negative information means that it is also easier to dwell on negative information. The challenge in our modern day and age is that a student’s negative comment, something that’s not really considered to be a life-threatening situation at all, can kick off this survival mechanism. Why? Because our brain does not distinguish between real-life threats and imaginary threats. As a result, it forgets the positive, safe information and pays a disproportionate amount of attention to even the smallest negative information! In other words, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones” (Hanson, 2013). And as you might predict, this can cause unnecessary stress, reduce our self-confidence and our overall wellbeing.


Why do we need to know about negativity bias?

Understanding what it is and why we experience “negativity bias” can be helpful for everyone, but in particular for teachers and trainers since we play a central role in creating positive and psychologically safe learning environments. Being able to recognise that we are dwelling on a negative experience means we are able to manage our response more appropriately and initiate the proactive use of strategies to neutralise the negative.

Also, in a classroom context it is highly likely that we will encounter students or trainees who are experiencing negativity bias. I only need to recall a trainee who had just delivered a wonderful lesson but kept saying how stupid they were after being told they had handed out the task before setting the instructions. The whole lesson was now regarded as a disaster! If we can manage our own negativity bias, we can not only model and explain how we deal with it, but we are also better equipped to respond with empathy and patience when our students or trainees are going through a similar experience.

Now, I don’t know if you agree, but speaking from my own experiences and conversations with colleagues it often feels like teaching seems to attract a lot of perfectionists. This is wonderful since we bend over backwards to plan and deliver the ‘perfect’ lesson (if that even exists…), however, it might be even more important for us perfectionists to develop some strategies to manage this negativity bias. Because there will always be a Debbie Downer or Negative Nancy and we need to let that negative thought go and move on!




So, how can we manage negative bias?

Since negative thoughts seem to have super-sticky powers, we need to pro-actively plan for strategies that can help us manage our response.  No one is perfect and we all receive negative feedback at times, but the trick is to unhook and let them go. For our own wellbeing it is important that we think about balancing our attention and, instead of ignoring positive comments, focus on them so they get sticky too.

1- Put things in perspective - for those of you who love numbers and evidence-informed teaching, simply do the maths when you get a negative comment that hooks your brain. For example, in this case I received 1 negative comment out of 26. That is exactly 3.8% negative feedback! In other words, 96.2 % of my student feedback was positive and represented happy students! What grade would you give your student for having 96.2% of the answers correct? A straight A or maybe an A-, but a high score, right? So why not give yourself that A too? Remember, you did a great job and you simply can’t make everyone happy, every time!

2- Enjoy the positives more Hanson (2013) states that we need about five positive thoughts to counteract one negative thought. Select five positive comments and take some time to truly attend to these. Stop, pause, and read them again carefully and consider how special it is that your students took the time and effort to share their positive experiences with you. Rushing through positive comments does not have the desired effect, so take some time to let the message sink in and override that negativity bias. You could even note down for each negative comment five positive thoughts. Getting in the habit of noticing and appreciating good things, no matter how small they are can help us create a more balanced perspective.




3- Create an “I am awesome portfolio” Overtime, collect some of the positive notes, letters, emails and/or comments you receive from students, colleagues, observers and parents. You can collect them in a notebook or create an online file. My learners often write feedback on colourful stickies and I tend to put some of those random “Thank you teacher, you are the best” notes in a big jar on my desk. On days that I feel I can’t move beyond negative comments, I open the jar and read a few of their messages. No matter how old they are, they make me smile and remind me of the fact that I am doing ok, even though I might not be perfect, no one is. They remind me that I am making a small difference, and a lot of these small differences make a huge difference!

4- Practise self-compassion - approach yourself with kindness and think about the fact that everyone in life will receive negative comments occasionally. These comments do not define who you are. They are not the end of the world. We can make these comments a part of our learning journey by questioning if there is anything we could change next time. Or reflect on why someone might have possibly felt like this. If you see no learning opportunities in it for you, then just remember that learners also have ‘off days’ and might therefore have a different view of the same event! Think about what you would tell your friend if they told you about 25 positive comments and one negative one? Now say this to yourself.




A final thought

Whilst it’s great that we care so much about one negative comment, in the end we should remember that we can’t make everyone happy! If we are doing what we can to create effective learning opportunities and engaging lessons in a supportive, positive learning environment where everyone feels safe and respected then stop, pause and reflect on the negative comment; question if there’s any learning we can take away from it. If so, let’s own it and move on. If not? Move on too. Don’t be too harsh on yourself, you wouldn’t do that to a friend in a similar situation, right? And remember, we do not need to be perfect, good is good enough!



Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The Practical Science of Reshaping Your Brain—and Your Life 

Mercer, S. & Gregersen, T. (2020). Teacher Wellbeing. Oxford: OUP Oxford