Positive, negative thinkers' brains revealed

April 2, 2014, Michigan State University
Thinking positively and negatively may be at least partly a function of biology, a new Michigan State University study finds. Credit: Michigan State University

The ability to stay positive when times get tough—and, conversely, of being negative—may be hardwired in the brain, finds new research led by a Michigan State University psychologist.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, is the first to provide validating the idea that there are, in fact, positive and negative people in the world.

"It's the first time we've been able to find a marker that really distinguishes negative thinkers from positive thinkers," said Jason Moser, lead investigator and assistant professor of psychology.

For the study, 71 female participants were shown graphic images and asked to put a positive spin on them while their brain activity was recorded. Participants were shown a masked man holding a knife to a woman's throat, for example, and told one potential outcome was the woman breaking free and escaping.

The participants were surveyed beforehand to establish who tended to think positively and who thought negatively or worried. Sure enough, the brain reading of the positive thinkers was much less active than that of the worriers during the experiment.

"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 worse even when they are asked to think positively."

The study focused on women because they are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety related problems and previously reported sex differences in brain structure and function could have obscured the results.

Moser said the findings have implications in the way negative thinkers approach difficult situations.

"You can't just tell your friend to think positively or to not worry – that's probably not going to help them," he said. "So you need to take another tack and perhaps ask them to think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies."

Negative could also practice thinking positively, although Moser suspects it would take a lot of time and effort to even start to make a difference.

Explore further: Anxious girls' brains work harder

Related Stories

Anxious girls' brains work harder

June 5, 2012
In a discovery that could help in the identification and treatment of anxiety disorders, Michigan State University scientists say the brains of anxious girls work much harder than those of boys.

Brain sets prices with emotional value

July 2, 2013
You might be falling in love with that new car, but you probably wouldn't pay as much for it if you could resist the feeling. Researchers at Duke University who study how the brain values things—a field called neuroeconomics—have ...

Women anticipate negative experiences differently to men

August 23, 2011
Men and women differ in the way they anticipate an unpleasant emotional experience, which influences the effectiveness with which that experience is committed to memory, according to new research.

Young children understand the benefits of positive thinking

December 22, 2011
Even kindergarteners know that thinking positively will make you feel better. And parents' own feelings of optimism may play a role in whether their children understand how thoughts influence emotions.

Study finds 'owning' a darker skin can positively impact racial bias

May 14, 2013
Scientists from Royal Holloway University have found that when white Caucasians are under the illusion that they have a dark skin, their racial bias changes in a positive way.

Recommended for you

Prediction of psychotic onset with AI language analysis

January 24, 2018
Psychiatrists characterize schizophrenia, a mental condition with devastating effects on those who suffer it, by a set of intuitively understandable concepts including "poverty of speech" and "flight of ideas." These concepts, ...

Hospice patients define the changing nature of wisdom in their final days

January 24, 2018
Wisdom is typically considered to be the fruit of a long life, the accumulation of experiences lived and lessons learned. In recent years, scientists have created a consensus definition of wisdom as a complex trait with several ...

Short-course treatment for combat-related PTSD offers expedited path to recovery

January 23, 2018
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be debilitating and standard treatment can take months, often leaving those affected unable to work or care for their families. But, a new study demonstrated that many ...

Social and emotional skills linked to better student learning

January 23, 2018
Students with well-developed and adaptive social and emotional behaviours are most likely to excel in school, according to UNSW researchers in educational psychology.

Priming can negate stressful aspects of negative sporting environments, study finds

January 23, 2018
The scene is ubiquitous in sports: A coach yells at players, creating an environment where winning is the sole focus and mistakes are punished. New research from the University of Kansas shows that when participants find ...

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.