Understanding Negative News

(Read time: 6 minutes)

We frequently hear that the world is becoming a better place and for those who become overly optimistic, rest assured the news channels are always available. The constant barrage of stories about climate change, oppression, inequality, crime and pandemics will quickly bring you back to reality.

Journalism at its heart is a worthy cause – in my eyes, journalism is responsible for building an awareness of global events, thus enabling individuals to become more informed. By becoming more informed we are better equipped to fight for a just society, we are better equipped to apply political pressure where necessary, and we are more likely to keep ourselves in check. Tasks which were historically partly delegated to religion have somewhat been transferred to journalism, which continues to grow in its role in acting as a social compass.   

But have we ever considered the nature of the news? Have we considered what impact it may be having on us, on our viewpoint and on our overall wellbeing? Have we ever wondered why good news draws less attention than bad news? While we all understand that bad news sells more than good news, what is the underlying rationale behind this logic?

According to the London School of Economics, negative news leads to more sales simply because we are more likely to pay attention to negative news over positive news. But is this concept limited to the news? Let’s take a step back and consider the following examples, all of which I have personally experienced:

  • While giving a presentation at work, you temporarily forget your lines – you then feel embarrassed for the entire week even though it is likely no one even noticed;
  • you’re given feedback on a project where, irrespective of all the good comments, you dwell on the one development point;
  • you have an argument with someone and for a short time after you are only able to focus on their faults.

After conducting some research, these are all examples of the negativity bias which postulates that events which have a negative perception are more likely to have an impact on one’s phycological state, even in instances where the positive perception clearly outweighs the negative.

According to a study conducted by the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, there is a theory that this attitude towards negative information is an evolutionary trait. Not too long ago in the timeline of human evolution, paying attention to negative information was literally a matter of life and death; as a result, it makes sense that our experiences are shaped by negative perceptions and that we are naturally drawn towards negative news.

At the same time, according to a journal posted on Science Direct, negative news is more likely to be seen as truthful simply because it draws more attention. As a result, the news can quickly distort people’s perception of reality because of the Availability Heuristic, which as explained in the paper by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman suggests that negative news will be seen as more common simply because of the ease with which relevant instances come to mind. So, we find ourselves in a situation where the news will repeatedly pick up an anomaly, leading us to believe it is the norm and thus increasing our generally glum outlook.

Another interesting theory is that we are subconsciously addicted to knowing about events outside of our immediate circle and in particular to gossip. According to a paper published in Social Neuroscience, negative gossip significantly enhances the caudate nucleus, which is also known as the reward system of the brain. Rather than being malicious, this process is again due to our timeline – as explained by Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, social interactions which include gossiping not only allowed humans to survive but also expand their tribes, forge relationships and hierarchies.

Understanding all of this, it is clear why the news can lead us into a vicious cycle whereby it will temporality parachute us into a bulletin which provides the facts and figures before instantaneously transposing us into the next bulletin. Don’t get me wrong – there are a number of extremely important stories out there that we need to understand. However, at the same time, it makes sense that more and more people are reporting a feeling of helplessness, contempt and desensitisation when watching the news.

Could you therefore argue that we have not yet evolved to cope with the amount of information available to us, or the way in which it is disseminated? Perhaps in the same way, I became intrigued about understanding why I was so easily drawn towards negative news; maybe someday in the future someone will look at us to better understand their individual behaviours.

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