This Might Help You Understand Your Irritability… (Part 1) The Hostility Bias

Let’s think about your inner caveperson.

The evolutionary purpose of negative emotions (i.e. why we have them – just like we have evolved opposable thumbs for a purpose) is mainly that they are a signaling system to signal to us when to look out for signs of threat.

We’ve evolved so that when we feel negative emotions, our thinking becomes:

– orientated towards the negative (so that we don’t fail to spot a potential threat)

– more narrow, rigid, and all vs. nothing (so that when we notice a potential threat we stay focussed on the possible threat and cannot successfully distract ourselves from paying attention to it)

The key point is

emotions influence thinking processes, including our assessments of threat (judgments).

How does this play out interpersonally?

In our evolutionary past, “threats” to survival came in two main varieties

– physical threats (predators, accidents, losing your ability to acquire the resources for living etc)


– interpersonal threats (getting excluded from your tribe, getting abandoned by your mate etc).

The problem

the system misfires a lot since overall it was better to spot a potential danger that wasn’t there than fail to spot a catastrophic danger.

And, the effect of negative emotions on thoughts isn’t always useful to us and can be very unpleasant.

When someone is feeling negative emotions likes depression or anxiety

the negative emotion signaling system is in overdrive.

ONE of the ways this plays out is that when people feel depressed or anxious they become more prone to what’s called “The Hostility Bias”.

The hostility bias leads people to

– interpret ambiguous cues as negative


– interpret mildly negative cues as more hostile than is warranted by reality

We become prone to feeling attacked

We become prone to feeling attacked – we tend to judge other people’s behaviour as having hostile intentions – when attack was not necessarily intended.

Here’s a couple of intimate relationships examples:

– your partner asks a question and you interpret it as a criticism.


– your partner meant something as a complaint about a specific behaviour (e.g. the way you were folding the washing) and you interpreted it as a criticism of your personality (e.g. you’re a moron who can’t do anything right).

The hostility bias occurs in all sorts of interactions. You might notice yourself interpreting your boss’s behaviour, strangers’ behaviour etc through the cognitive filter of the hostility bias.

DIY Psychological Challenge

Notice when you feel attacked. Try to notice it in the moment rather than after the fact. Ask yourself if there are other ways of interpreting the situation

– that potentially have some validity


– that might lead to more helpful feelings and behaviours.

Is your attack signaling system in overzealous mode?

Notice –

1. how your emotions influence your thoughts

2. how your thoughts then influence your behavioural reactions, and

3. how your behaviours influence the quality of your relationships. i.e. if you are behaving out of a sense of being attacked those behaviours are likely to get in the way of having smooth and/or close interpersonal relationships. Often the situation becomes a self fulfilling prophecy where interpreting cues as attacks leads to behaviours that result in relationship conflict, rejection, or you abandoning relationships yourself. For example, you start a new job and interpret your new coworkers as not welcoming enough, which leads to you not putting in effort to form relationships with them.

When you feel attacked try to choose your behaviours based on reality checking, your overall valued life directions (e.g. relationship closeness, openness to influence, respect for self, respect for others, communicating clearly, professionalism) and what seems like the most helpful way to behave in the situation rather basing your behaviours on wanting to attack back, escape, or freeze.