Positive, negative thinkers’ brains revealed

April 2, 2014 |

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 biological evidence 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 brain 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 negative emotions 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 thinkers could also practice thinking positively, although Moser suspects it would take a lot of time and effort to even start to make a difference.

His co-researchers were former or current MSU psychology students Rachel Hartwig, Tim Moran and Alexander Jendrusina; and University of Michigan researcher Ethan Kross.

4 Responses to Positive, negative thinkers’ brains revealed

  1. Raeesa (14114501) May 2, 2014 at 2:11 am #

    Positive thinking is a very important quality that each of us should possess.
    In order not stagnate, it is important to think positively, and should the situation arise where negative thoughts enters ones mind, immediately, one should refocus ones thoughts and organize ones self in order to ensure a positive result.

    always see the glass as “HALF FULL” rather than as “HALF EMPTY.”

  2. u14026814 Tanja Werle April 19, 2014 at 11:41 pm #

    Thank-you, that is definitely true. That is a very good way to learn to develop positive thoughts and to calm the mind. If you do not make a conscious decision to check your thought patterns, you will not develop positive thinking and as a result, you will not feel more positive.

    The power of the mind is truly amazing! I have even heard of somebody who used her mind to make her migraine disappear. She did not even swallow a painkiller!

  3. Omkar April 3, 2014 at 5:39 am #

    Good to know this result! To think positively and to have this as a habit, we need to practice it. Initially it will take lot of effort. Here, we need to keep a check on the kind of thoughts running in our mind. For example, every hour take a minute of break to keep a check on the thought traffic. If negative thoughts are running, create opposite positive thoughts. Thus reducing the pace of thoughts and calming the mind. This should one of the ways to develop positive thinking.

  4. u14026814 Tanja Werle April 2, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    This is definitely true. A worrier may even have to go for psychological treatment to be taught to use calming exercises to decrease his/her brain activity, and thus his/her negative thoughts and stress. For example, a person who stresses him/herself to the point where he/she cannot eat before a test may need to see an educational psychologist to help the person restore his/her appetite. The person is unable to find the good in the situation or it takes a lot of effort. Any suggestions on how else a person can learn to think positively?

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