Vet Wellness Briefs: Using the Rule of Six

A female veterinarian holds a tablet in front of a horse in its stall and smiles at the camera. Using the Rule of Six will help your mood improve.
By applying the Rule of Six when negative thoughts creep in, your mood will lighten and your work life will improve. iStock

Human beings are afflicted with a negativity bias. This means that in almost any situation, we are more likely to notice the negative things. Later, we remember them more vividly. This tendency to fixate our attention on bad things and overlook good things is likely a result of evolution. According to researchers, earlier in human history, paying attention to dangerous threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more attuned to danger and who paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive. This meant they were also more likely to hand down the genes that made them more attentive to danger. [i]

Negativity Bias

Our negativity bias means we often remember traumatic experiences longer and more clearly than positive experiences, recall insults or painful remarks better than praise, react more forcefully to negative events than positive ones, and think negative thoughts more often than positive ones. The effect of this is multi-faceted: We learn more from our mistakes than our successes. We make decisions based on avoiding negative consequences rather than creating positive outcomes. Similarly, we have more motivation when an incentive will help us avoid the loss of something than when the same incentive is framed as a means to gain something. We give more weight to negative data than positive. Bad news gets more attention and is seen as more truthful. 

The Rule of Six

Just knowing about this bias can help us be more rational and positive. However, using a technique called the Rule of Six is even more powerful.

As an example, think of a time when you left a message for a client or a friend, and they hadn’t returned your text or call after a day had gone by. You begin to ruminate, thinking “The client is unhappy with my work. They called someone else,” or “Maybe I’ve done something to offend my friend.”  

As you fixate on the lack of response, you begin to get angry. Then your thoughts could be “That client is rude and disrespectful,” or “I guess I can see what kind of a friend he is!” All of the positive facts that you know to be true seem to recede in your brain.

Applications in Equine Practice

Client Relations

Here’s where using the Rule of Six can make such a positive difference. You start with your negative bias as

#1: “That client is rude and disrespectful.”

Then, you must make five other statements that could explain the lack of a response.

#2: “The client is unhappy with my work. They called someone else.”

#3: “The client went out of town for the weekend, the horse is doing well, and they don’t see urgency in calling me back immediately.”

#4: “The message was garbled because I was calling from a place with spotty service.”

#5: “The client lost their phone, or the sound was muted.” And

#6: “The client had a family emergency, and my call is not a priority now.”

Staff Relations

At work, your assistant is late getting there when you expected him/her to be ready for an early departure. You think with irritation,

#1 “She doesn’t prioritize me at all. She is SO irresponsible!”

Apply the Rule of Six.

#2: “She overslept.”

#3: “Her car wouldn’t start—it’s really cold out!”

#4: “Her kindergartener’s bus was late for pickup.”

#5: “She had an accident on her way in.”  And

#6: “She’s had a family emergency—her mother with cancer has died!”

Long-Term Benefits of the Rule of Six

Notice how as you think of different reasons, your brain begins to pivot away from the negative. The next time you find yourself mired in negativity, give the Rule of Six a try! Your relationships at work and in your personal life will improve, and your mood will lighten.


[i] Cacioppo JT, Cacioppo S, Gollan JK. The negativity bias: Conceptualization, quantification, and individual differences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2014;37(3):309-310. doi:10.1017/s0140525x13002537

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