New research has determined that positive and negative attitudes may be hardwired in the brain, raising the possibility of naturally born optimists and pessimists.

"It's the first time we've been able to find a brain marker that really distinguishes negative thinkers from positive thinkers," Dr. Jason Moser, lead author and a researcher at Michigan State University, said in press release.

The new study, which is published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, sought to investigate the difference between positive and negative brains by asking 71 female volunteers to put a positive “spin” on graphic images. For example, participants would be shown an image of a man holding a knife to a woman’s throat and asked to assign a better outcome, such as the woman breaking free and escaping. Moser and colleagues also conducted individual interviews to determine whether subjects were more likely to be positive or negative in everyday life.

By monitoring each subject’s brain profile throughout the experiment, the team discovered that negative participants displayed much more activity compared to those with an overall positive attitude. "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."

Born with a Frown

The study dovetails with a similar paper from last year, in which researchers from the University of British Columbia showed that some negative thinkers can blame their worries on bad genes. An experiment revealed that a certain gene variant appears to influence pessimists’ perception of life by amplifying negative experiences and emotional events.

According to Moser, these findings suggest that some of us may need to reconsider our approach to friends and family members for whom everyday life seems a bit less fun. "You can't just tell your friend to think positively or to not worry — that's probably not going to help them," he explained. "So you need to take another tack and perhaps ask them to think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies."

 

Source: Mason J, Hartwig R, Moran T, Jendrusina A, Kross E. Neural markers of positive reappraisal and their associations with trait reappraisal and worry. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 2014.