The old journalistic refrain “if it bleeds, it leads” is often looked at with disgust and a lack of understanding for the reason behind the saying: the human brain.
According to psychologist and author Rick Hanson, human evolution has led to our brains constantly scouting for threats in our environment. When we find one, we isolate and fixate on that threat, sometimes losing sight of larger problems.
This tendency worked out well for humans living in more primitive times, but just because we face fewer threats from wild animals and invading barbarian hordes does not mean this instinct has gone by the wayside.
Our inherent threat awareness is still present and actually creates what is known as “negativity bias,” a trait that causes us to react intensely when encountering bad news or negative experiences that will have a dramatic effect on us. Because of this, humans tend to learn more from negative experiences than positive.
“We’ve got this negativity bias that’s a kind of bug in the Stone Age brain in the 21st century,” Hanson told The Huffington Post in 2013. “It makes it hard for us to learn from our positive experiences, even though learning from your positive experiences is the primary way to grow inner strength.”
Given this neuroscientific and evolutionary explanation for our propensity to be drawn to bad news, it’s not too surprising that we look for dramatic and negative things and share them when we find them. What makes it difficult for people to handle is the proliferation of negative messages from so many different sources such as TV, newspapers, radio, social media and Internet sites.
Dr. Graham Davey, a British psychologist specializing in the effect of media violence, told The Huffington Post in 2015 that violent or negative media can contribute to the development of stress, depression and anxiety.
“Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be,” Davey said.
Crime, corruption, terrorism, political drama, poverty, war, economic strife – we are capable of becoming fixated on these issues and not because they are problems specific to life in the 21st century. Thanks to a 24-hour news cycle, social media and the speed at which information is shared today, we not only see more threats, they are coming at us faster than ever.
“We must follow the truth wherever it takes us. And to do so we have to be open to receiving and accepting truths that are contradictory to what we know and believe. That’s not easy.” – Wayne Lesperance, New England College Professor of Political Science
Yet, life is not any more violent or dangerous than at any other time in history as a website called ourworldindata.org found, according to a 2014 Public Radio International article. In the life of an average individual, dangerous, dramatic things do not occur daily or even weekly. Life goes on as such for most people, but in large cities, or when looking at the globe as a whole, today’s journalists can easily find something negative to report somewhere, and so they do.
This could be because studies show we are more likely to pay attention to journalists’ work if they play to this bias. According to researchers at Canada’s McGill University, most of us see the world through somewhat rose-colored glasses and expect that in the end things will be alright. This mentality makes bad news more surprising and important to us because it threatens our relatively rosy reality.
An article from Psychology Today noted that humans care more about the threat of bad things than we do about the prospect of good things happening. Our brains are in fact, hardwired to pay attention to things that cause us to experience fear and activate stress hormones.
The McGill researchers conducted their experiment allowing subjects to surf a news website and watch a video. Subjects were told that the study was to track their eye movements and were given no suggestions in terms of what to watch.
At the end, they were asked questions about what type of news they would like to read, and the results were interesting as they showed contradictions between what people think they want and actual behavior.
More often than not, participants chose to read stories about negative news events rather than neutral or positive stories. Those interested in politics and current events were most likely to select negative stories. When asked, however, if they prefer bad news, many said no and that the media is “too focused on negative stories,” according to a report on the study from the BBC.
Negativity Bias in Media and Politics
Wayne Lesperance, New England College
Negative messages can bring about a number of effects on human beings, from depression to anger and confusion over what to believe and who to trust, particularly when it comes to our politics.
According to the McGill researchers, information conveyed in negative political ads is more likely to be remembered than information in positive ads. Is it any wonder then why campaign language and ads tend to be focused on the questionable aspects of a candidate’s opponent?
As humans, we are more interested in and reactive to negativity, so it only seems natural that when candidates start slinging insults at one another, whether on a debate stage or in a campaign ad, we get caught up in the offensive comments more than the substance of the issues. Negativity also gives pundits and social media a steady of supply of sound bites to talk about, something easily digestible to feed their audience.
According to a report from The Wesleyan Media Project, negative political ads have increased significantly since the 2000 election. From mid-August to mid-September 2016, negative ads comprised more than 53% of political advertisements, up from 48% during the same period in 2012.
While there is no shortage of these ads, New England College professor of Political Science Wayne Lesperance believes there is a point where negative political ads begin to hurt their creators as much as help.
“Negative ads work because they are memorable, they inspire people to talk about them around the watercooler or dinner table,” Lesperance said. “They often have an extended life because if they are controversial enough they become the subject of news reports. So, negative media and attack ads are here to stay.
“But, at a granular level it is possible to imagine an ad that goes too far or backfires. That took place, for example, with an ad the McCain campaign ran against Barack Obama comparing him to Paris Hilton (in 2008). Similarly, there are images and ideas to which there may be very strong reactions. Ads using the Twin Towers, for example, have been edited to avoid using 9/11 for marketing purposes. Candidates are careful not to tread heavily on those sensitive areas.”
Just as there may be a real need for more positive journalism in our society, there is a growing acknowledgement that the mix of policy or substance in political arenas needs to balance the simple cues and sound bites we’ve come to expect.
Asked whether or not he felt our negativity bias is detrimental to the electoral process as a whole, Lesperance had this to say:
“Maybe. Negativity bias is a subjective expression in my view. We are politically socialized whether we want to be or not, to see the world through the lens of our experiences along with the people and events who have had an influence on us all mixed in with a predisposition to be comfortable with change or not. So, that I may have a negative bias on an issue someone else supports is problematic if I can’t defend my position or am unwilling to consider change.
“And that’s where critical thinking skills become so important. We must follow the truth wherever it takes us. And to do so we have to be open to receiving and accepting truths that are contradictory to what we know and believe. That’s not easy. What is easy is retreating to old truths, not questioning them, and continuing a path that others have followed. Sometimes, by the way, that’s appropriate. Other times, it is not.”
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One thing that is more certain is that in 2016, the reach of negativity goes beyond traditional media platforms, invading our social media news feeds as well. An article from Politico called Donald Trump “the first candidate optimized for the Google News algorithm” and a “natural born troll, adept to issuing inflammatory bulletins at opportune moments,” as he racks up a massive social media following by appealing to anger and other negative emotions many people experience when they think about politics and the goings-on around Washington, D.C., particularly conservatives.
Research from John Hibbing at the University of Nebraska, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2014, argues that conservatives have a negativity bias that makes them psychologically more susceptible to negative messages and helps form conservative political ideology. Characteristics such as a desire for a strong military, tough stances on immigration, keeping guns widely available and strict law enforcement principles may all be the result of a threat-oriented biology.
Hibbing’s theory is far from universally accepted, but Lesperance believes the study has some merit depending on how we define negativity bias.
“That’s an interesting study to be sure, but I think we need to parse out this notion of negativity bias,” Lesperance said. “If we take it to mean an aversion to change, then sure, that sounds about right. Conservatives are reluctant to change especially when that change seems to be based on emotional rather than intellectual reasoning. The notion that conservatives focus on potential threats to their condition/station makes sense. They are the party of ‘stay the course’ while progressives/liberals are the party of change. Change, by definition, threatens the status quo conservatives want to protect.”