If you read the headlines today, you probably
come away feeling like
the world is a scary, dangerous, hopeless
But in reality, many things are better now
Worldwide homicide rates have largely been
dropping for centuries, for example,
and global life expectancy keeps climbing.
So why all the bad news?
It’s easy to put the blame on the media
sensational, negative news stories that’ll
sell papers; if it bleeds, it leads, as they say.
But who’s buying those papers?
Like, we are. And there’s a psychological reason for that.
Even if we say we prefer good news, we are
wired to pay more attention to bad news.
But here’s a surprise: social media might
be the antidote.
The media isn’t making it up: there really
is higher consumer demand for negative news.
In 2007, the Pew Research Center released
US consumer news preferences over the last
Throughout that time, the most popular topics
stayed pretty reliable:
war and terrorism, bad weather, and human-made
and natural disasters. Bad news all around.
A 2012 study found a clue as to why.
In that study, participants were hooked up
to biosensors to watch a series of news stories.
The negative stories brought on stronger and
more sustained reactions
in the participants’ heart rates and skin
conductance levels than positive stories did.
As an explanation, the researchers in that
pointed to a long-established phenomenon:
That’s the tendency for negative things,
all else being equal,
to have a bigger effect on us than positive
Specifically, negative things stick out more in your
mind and tend to outweigh any other good things.
Your brain also processes the negative more
thoroughly than the positive.
For example, people tend to describe negative
with more complex language than they do positive
The weird thing is that there’s also a positivity
That’s the tendency for people to form mostly
positive theories about reality.
And that contradiction, in itself, also has
a name: positive-negative asymmetry.
Basically, we assume things will be mostly good,
but we still place more importance on bad things.
For one thing, they’re more rare, and for
ignoring them is a bigger risk than paying
them too much attention.
The thinking is that this helps us survive.
Assuming things will turn out okay motivates
people to explore the world,
whether that’s venturing out of their cave
or asking someone out on a date.
But at the same time, being vigilant about
helps people avoid danger while they’re
doing that exploring.
That may be why negative headlines are so
good at grabbing our attention.
A 1991 study had participants read negative,
positive, and neutral words
printed in different colors and asked them
to name the colors as quickly as possible.
It took longest for them to name the colors
of negative words, and according to researchers,
that’s because they couldn’t help but
pay attention to the word itself.
In a study from 2003, researchers flashed
negative and positive words
at participants at a pace too fast for them
to consciously register.
They still got a sense for the words on a
subconscious level, but didn’t read them exactly.
Still, those participants got a stronger impression
of the negative words than the positive words.
And a 2014 study found that even people who said
they preferred positive news stories still
gravitated toward negative ones.
In other words, time and again, it’s been shown
that we’re more aware of, and drawn to, the negative.
But believe it or not, there may be a glimmer
of hope, thanks to social media, of all things.
In 2010, the New York Times released an analysis
of over 7,000 articles,
showing the more positive an article was,
the more likely it was to be shared, and to go viral.
And another study in 2017 showed that people
using YouTube and Twitter
prefer sharing positive content over negative
Why is this? It may come down to the difference between
how people use social media and how they use
We consume the news as outside observers,
but we use social media as active participants.
People post, tweet, and email links to signal
things about themselves
and communicate with the rest of the world.
And just like in real life, if you’re a
Debbie Downer who fills people’s feeds with
too much sad, scary, or maddening content,
you risk turning people off.
And that could sway our feeds to feel more
However, researchers note that studying emotional
whether something is perceived as positive
is different from studying what researchers
which tracks whether or not something activates
the nervous system and helps us feel.
It turns out that high arousal makes more
of an impact on the decision to share something
than whether it’s positive or negative,
especially if what’s being shared taps into
feelings of awe, anger, or anxiety.
And that might explain why some people feel
like the tone and the content
of what’s being shared online has changed
a lot in recent years.
It’s not ALL adorable cat pictures, unfortunately.
But don’t count out the bad news.
Researchers hypothesize that negativity bias
is there to keep us vigilant about what can hurt us,
and the media is there to keep us abreast
of threats, problems, and wrongdoing in the world.
If we shield ourselves from negative news,
we can’t do anything to protect ourselves,
or to make it right.
So yes, enjoy that feel-good story your aunt
shared on Facebook,
but don’t discount the gloomy headlines
Those headlines help us make the world a better
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