Most news outlets lead with disasters, crimes and misdemeanours. This is partly down to media convention – there’s the old media adage “if it bleeds it leads”, and many journalistic reputations are forged through the uncovering of establishment scandals or ineptitudes (true to the notion of the media as the ‘fourth estate’ that helps keep those in power in check). Of course, negative stories are also important in the practical sense of informing us about dangers, such as global pandemics or an incoming inclement weather.
Yet there is another side to this question: the overwhelming reader demand for gloom and doom. This is likely explained by what psychologists have long recognised as our ‘negativity bias’ – we pay more attention to, and better remember negative experiences. We’re more likely to spot angry faces than happy ones in a crowd, and many languages have a much wider vocabulary for describing negative emotions than jolly ones.
This bias probably evolved as a survival mechanism, and it affects our taste in news. In one 2014 study, researchers in the US and Canada tracked volunteers’ eye movements as they browsed an online news site, and found that even those who professed a preference for positive stories actually spent more time scanning the negative ones.
Another study led by the University of Michigan showed that across 17 countries, from New Zealand to China, people on average showed stronger emotional reactions (measured by skin conductance and heart rate variability) to negative news stories. But this wasn’t true for everyone, so the researchers say that there could be a niche market for positive news, too.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.