Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why we are attracted to bad news

We've known this about ourselves for a long time, haven't we? There's a reason why we always slow down to check out a car wreck and why the old media saying is "if it bleeds, it leads." The truth about human beings is that - at this point in our evolution - we are attracted to bad news.

And we also know why...our brains are wired for it. We've even given it a name - negativity bias.
In the brain, there are two different systems for negative and positive stimuli. The left hemisphere, which is known for articulate language, is specialized for positive experiences; whereas, the right hemisphere focuses on negative experiences. Another area of the brain used for the negativity bias is the amygdala. This specific area of the brain uses about two-thirds of its neurons searching for negative experiences. Once the amygdala starts looking for the bad news, it is stored into long-term memory. Positive experiences have to be held in awareness for more than twelve seconds in order for the transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory to take place... Implicit memory registers and responds to negative events almost immediately. It takes five to twenty seconds for positive experiences to even register in the brain.
Negativity bias means that our brains and body get a jolt out of bad news, whereas good news rolls in slowly and quietly. If you think that the news media, political campaigns, and bloggers aren't well acquainted with this scientific fact then you're fooling yourself. Its what drives clicks, eyeballs and donations. And the more tolerance we develop to being manipulated like that, the more sensational the headlines become.

Bloggers all over the political spectrum exploit this reality. Nothing drives up traffic more than finding some obnoxious thing an obscure person from the opposition has done. Scream about it in your headline and the traffic soars. Pick a problem you care about passionately and write endless columns about how awful things are and you'll develop a devoted following.

The trouble with overdosing on negativity bias is that it has consequences. After a while all those jolts of bad news pile up and lead to discouragement then pessimism then cynicism then depression. It also ultimately leads to seeing yourself as the victim of all that bad news. So instead of actually engaging in the struggle, we wallow in our defeats - focusing our attention on the power of the opposition rather than our victories, no matter how small they sometimes are.

The research about all this tells us that it takes 5 positive experiences to counteract 1 negative experience. That's why I find the work of Linda H. over at what IS working to be so vital. When you feel yourself getting discouraged, go check out what she's talking about and soak up a little antidote to your negativity bias.

P.S. Sometimes the purveyors of negativity bias have suggested that those who pay attention to the positive are "propagandists." My suggestion would be that a focus one way or the other would deserve that title. Its just that we have to remember the 5:1 ratio and the reality that its a lot easier to be a successful propagandist when you exploit the negativity bias.


  1. May I hug you now? I was thinking of writing something myself about how I'm overloaded with all the bad news and am struggling to find the good news. Twitter is especially guilty of this negative bias. The OMG I *must* react to this horrible Bill that was PROPOSED by the opposition. No matter that it's in a State a thousand miles away. It's gotten so that I can't even find out what the Democrats are doing because everyone is so focused on the latest lunacy from the right wing.

    This is why I had to stop reading the comment section at a site I visited frequently. One, I wasn't getting anything done and two, I was losing all sense of perspective. I had well and truly lost my optimism for the future.

    The other chronic problem with the click bait served up to us hourly is that almost no one proposes solutions. They write reams about the problem and not even one sentence about solutions. It's as if the entire blogosphere has lost the ability to view things creatively.

    I do not want to see the pragmatic and moderate 'movement' online become just one more racket. We deserve better. That's why my new favorite blog is right here. You give real thought to what you write and I learn stuff and feel encouraged. Plus I get so much more work done now. Blessings upon you, Smartypants.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Tien Le.

      Its a balancing act for me and sometimes I can go overboard one way or the other. I had to take a break from twitter recently. But then the skeetgate stuff today had me laughing my ass off. That's a good antidote as well :-)

    2. Exactly! My main reason for going to twitter is the laughs. People are so quick and clever and some days I laugh till it hurts. So there's that.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this article and mentioning me in it.

    You are the best. I draw strength from your blog, your attitude and your encouragement. Also a special shout out to the folks at theobamadiary.


    Linda from


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