For some, staying positive is an impossible task as negative thoughts continue to creep back into their consciousness. Conversely, some people are perpetually optimistic with never a day of despair.
New research may provide an explanation of this paradoxical behavior as researchers discover both the ability to stay positive when times get tough — and, conversely, of being negative — may have genetic roots.
A study led by Michigan State University psychologist Dr. Jason Moser is the first to provide biological evidence suggesting there are positive and negative thinkers.
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.
The study appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
This article first appeared on Psych Central on 2 April, 2014.