Updated: Apr 22, 2020
The Auditor’s Brain: Negativity Bias and Burnout
When we are good at our job as auditors, we find the things that are missing—gaps in information or breakdowns in process. Hours of every day, we train our brain to focus on how a process is incomplete.
This habit of mind does not automatically shut off when we leave the office. The brain continues to look for what is missing rather than for what is whole. Unfortunately, this mindset does not set us up for success in our personal relationships, nor does it serve us well when we want to take a risk or to try something new. It is no wonder there is burnout in the audit field.
The brain’s ability to adapt on the neural level over time, known as neuroplasticity, can occur in any direction—positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy—frequently without our consciously directing it. Essentially, the more we think a certain thought or react in a particular way—that is, the more we use a particular set of neurons—the more likely we are to think or react the same way in the future. This is why a conscientious auditor may find it difficult to shift her mindset after work. The good news is that we can “work out” our brains, using focused attention. Increased awareness of our thought patterns allows us to recognize and release thoughts that don’t serve the present situation, allowing us to see the entirety of a situation. Over time with this practice, we achieve greater mental clarity and flexibility of mind.
The brain already has a built-in negativity bias. The brain stores emotional responses as memories, with negative experiences “sticking” in the brain more than positive ones. This is because negative experiences are usually associated with greater neural activity. In addition, having had this negative experience once, an individual will begin to be aware of similar threats in the environment going forward, further enforcing the negative experience in memory. From an evolutionary perspective, we can easily see how this neuroplastic development served a purpose. Humans learned to recognize and respond to danger signals more efficiently, improving their odds of survival. Today, this same flight-or-fight response helps us to get out the way of the danger quickly (flight) or to take other defensive action (fight).
Despite negativity bias, some of us have a naturally optimistic and sunny disposition. But a lifetime of audit work, which exacerbates the brain’s intrinsic negativity bias, can shift away from the positive set point. It is critical for us to be cognizant of this phenomenon to move toward a more resilient frame of mind. Mindfulness training, in which you actively train your brain to focus on subjects you consciously choose rather than on those your brain defaults to, can help you counterbalance a strong negativity bias. With mindfulness, you can make positive shifts by focusing on items that bring you joy, rather than scanning for problems.
Don’t take my word for it. Check in and see if you notice this phenomenon. Most of us think we are generally positive, but start paying attention to the thoughts and conversations you have, and notice in which direction they tend to go. Please share your thoughts and anything you do to actively counter the negativity bias.
Try incorporating mini positive noticing practices throughout your day. Such a practice might be as simple as taking time to savor the smell of coffee or to fully experience the first sip. Or choose something else that you have long enjoyed and have begun to treat with indifference. Try to experience it as if it was the first time by writing a description for someone who has never experienced it.
For more information about negativity bias, please see http://www.rickhanson.net/how-your-brain-makes-you-easily-intimidated/ In 2015, Madeline Tang et al. published “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation” in Nature. In it, they write:
The brain is a target for stress and stress-related hormones. It undergoes functional and structural remodeling in response to stress in a manner that is adaptive under normal circumstances but can lead to damage when stress is excessive. It suggests that vulnerability to stress-induced brain plasticity is prominent in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), hippocampus, amygdala and other areas associated with fear-related memories and self-regulatory behaviors. The interactions between these brain regions determine whether life experiences lead to successful adaptation or maladaptation and impaired mental and physical health A study has shown that chronic stress induces less flexibility in attention shifting in the rodent and human adult.