How negativity bias impacts law enforcement

Imagine you work in a geographically appealing environment—cynics, please save your comments. During a slow evening at work, you enjoy watching a breathtaking sunset over the still water, through the giant forest, or disappearing into a deep green meadow.

Crime in progress

Suddenly, you receive a radio call of an armed robbery in progress. You quickly leave the hypnotic panorama behind and respond to the crime, hoping to catch the crook.

After arriving on scene, you discover a store clerk lying facedown in a pool of blood, deceased. The suspect has fled and gotten away. Now the investigation and manhunt begins.

What do you think you’ll remember more vividly about this tour of duty, the incredible sunset or the robbery/homicide? It’s a no brainer, right.


File photo of Chicago crime scene. (Screenshot Fox 8)

Negativity bias

Although this is an extreme example, the same thing would happen if the variables were less dramatic. It’s called the negativity bias.

The negativity bias is the tendency for humans to pay more attention, or give more weight to negative experiences over neutral or positive encounters.

I used an extreme illustration since police officers cross paths with horrifying events every day. So this is something we need to emotionally combat.

The psychological reality of negativity bias can have a powerful effect on your behavior, your decisions, and even your relationships.

Multiple stabbing victims

File photo, Tallahassee crime scene, 2019. (Screenshot WCTV)

Flattering comments and snarky remarks

Let’s look at it more simplistically. Think about compliments you have received from friends or colleagues. In all likelihood, you felt flattered at the moment, but then went on with your day.

Conversely, compare that to a single snarky remark. It likely impacted you more deeply. Perhaps it consumed your thoughts, and even carried over for days — or years in some cases.

Good news is like Teflon … it slides off.

Bad news is Velcro … it sticks.

“Good things last for a brief period of time, while bad things stick with us for weeks,” said a mentor of mine. … And it’s true! That is why we take public criticism so personal, regardless of how hard we try to let it roll off our back. “If only they knew the truth,” we say, regardless of their predisposition to be cop-haters.

negativity bias

(BruceEmmerling via Pixabay)

Cynicism effect

Police officers are “doubly cursed.” By this I mean we have the negativity bias to overcome in addition to what I’ll call the cynicism effect, which needs to be understood while on duty, and neutralized when we’re off.

The cynicism effect is the natural skepticism that most cops possess in order to uncover the spurious motivations of wrongdoers, i.e. crooks! It can be your friend during a criminal investigation, yet a bitter enemy when interacting with friends and family members.

If you doubt me, ask your loved ones. You probably think everyone is guilty of something. … I’ll bet some of you are guilty of being in denial right now. Ba Dum Bump!

Keeping it simple

So, what to do?

Since I am merely an amateur psychologist—as are most cops—I will keep this simple. Everything works better when joy is present. … Yep, that’s it. Find joy!

Fort Pierce police

After Hurricane Dorian, members of the Fort Pierce Police Department found a little joy in their work, Sept. 2019. (Fort Pierce Police Department)

Do you locate secreted evidence at a crime scene without looking? Of course not! Therefore, you will not find joy if you don’t look for it. Is your glass half-full or half-empty?

I have been a slow learner of this lesson throughout life. While I enjoy comedy and experiencing a good laugh, the “cop-side” of me has played out way too often in personal encounters. Therefore, I have often missed joyful experiences when they’ve been present.

“If you don’t make up your mind your unmade mind will unmake you.”

– E. Stanley Jones

While finding joy comes natural to some people, my experience has been that most police officers need to work at it. It’s a mindset that I’ve needed to reinforce so it populates my thinking.

Dan Meers story

Dan Meers is the mascot for the Kansas City Chiefs. He remembers a rehearsal gone terribly wrong, and his thankfulness for what happened after.

The faulty test jump of this stuntman possesses some good life lessons as how we can find joy.


Regardless of your perspective regarding Meers’ spiritual outlook, I hope you grasp the basic principles that he discussed.

Find something that makes you happy that involves joy, not simply “bad news” about your enemies. If you can find some joy in life, you’ll treasure the peace and serenity that accompanies it.


Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another—especially your enemies. It might bring momentary satisfaction, but if your life revolves around it, you will be a miserable, bitter person.

While looking for joy, nourish your mind with noble thoughts. Whatever you consume influences whom you become. Build worthwhile habits into your life and joy is sure to be present.

– Jim McNeff


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