“Our minds and lives are skewed by a fundamental imbalance that is just now becoming clear to scientists: Bad is stronger than good.” -The Power of Bad (2019)
The news, far from being a “first draft of history,” is closer to play-by-play sports commentary. It focuses on discrete events, generally those that took place since the last edition, heavily biased by the negative. The consequences of negative news are themselves negative.
The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. In many walks of life, this is a good rule of thumb. But whenever a memory turns up high in the result list of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency—because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting—people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.
The data scientist Kalev Leetaru applied sentiment mining to every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005 and to an archive of translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Sentiment mining assesses the emotional tone of a text by tallying the number and contexts of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible, and horrific.1
Putting aside the events reflecting the crises of the day, we see that the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day.
Far from being better informed, heavy news watchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling. Serious news watchers’ version of reality diverges substantially from the here and now. A 2016 poll found that a large majority of Americans follow news about Isis closely, and 77% agreed that “Islamic militants operating in Syria and Iraq pose a serious threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” a belief that is nothing short of delusional given the facts on the ground. 2
Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases, … complete avoidance of the news.” And they become fatalistic, saying things like “Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.”
It’s easy to see how the Availability heuristic, stoked by the news policy “If it bleeds, it leads,” could induce a sense of gloom about the state of the world. Media scholars who tally news stories of different kinds of present editors with a menu of possible stories and see which they pick and display them have confirmed that the gatekeepers prefer negative to positive coverage, holding the events constant.3
But why use the negative? And why is bad more potent than good in our minds?
Our evolutionary fight or flight survival wiring has a nasty little glitch affecting your everyday experience; a “negativity bias.” In helping us survive, the brain preferentially looks for, reacts to, stores, and then recalls negative information over positive information. It falls on us to use that negativity bias to our advantage.
Negativity bias refers to our propensity to “attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.”4 We can think of it as an asymmetry in how we process negative and positive occurrences to understand our world, in which “negative events elicit more rapid and more prominent responses than non-negative events.”5
Bad luck, bad news, and bad feelings create powerful incentives—the most powerful to make us stronger, smarter, and kinder. Bad can be put to excellent uses, but only if the rational brain understands its irrational impact. Beating bad takes wisdom and effort, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power.6
Among other things, it can explain why we often:
- Recall and think about insults more than compliments
- Respond more – emotionally and physically – to aversive stimuli
- Dwell on unpleasant or traumatic events more than pleasant ones
- Focus our attention more quickly on negative rather than positive information
Even when we experience numerous good events in one day, negativity bias can cause us to focus on the sole bad thing that occurred. It can make us ruminate on small things, worry about making a bad impression, and linger on negative comments.7
Four Methods for Extinguishing Negativity Bias
I have a couple of interventions to overcome your negativity bias.
- A “Finding Silver Linings” intervention is effective in group and one-on-one settings. It helps you adapt your view of negative experiences or events by taking a more balanced and positive perspective. You’ll shift into a positive mindset, identify a recent difficulty and its costs, then find the silver linings that are always present.
- “Moving From Cognitive Fusion to Defusion” is a mindfulness exercise that you can use to view your thoughts as thoughts. If you get caught up ruminating on negative situations or events, it is challenging to step back and see them for what they are, thereby defusing bad’s hold on you.
- With a “Savor the Moment” exercise, you can learn how to appreciate micro-moments of positivity in your life fully. Rather than focusing on the negative, you enhance your well-being by savoring the present moment, moving toward the positive-negative asymmetry we’ve discussed.8
- Lastly, you can use prospective thinking to imagine a better future.
I believe that controlling our micro-moments through small actions becomes a stacking effect of little straws meant to break the camel’s back. Instead of searching for or seeking large elegant solutions to our problems, challenges, and situations, we start our journeys of a thousand miles with “baby-like” first steps. Small micro-actions traverse tremendous obstacles using passion, planning, and perseverance to become the magic elixir of audacious action necessary to combat negativity bias. Focus on consistency over intensity in your actions.
I promise to deliver more on this subject very soon.
Until next time. Travel safe.
- Pinker, Steven The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences. The Guardian, 17 Feb 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/17/steven-pinker-media-negative-news
- Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383–403.
- Carretié, L., Mercado, F., Tapia, M., & Hinojosa, J. A. (2001). Emotion, attention, and the ‘negativity bias,’ studied through event-related potentials. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 41(1), 75–85.
- Tierney, J. & Baumeister R. F. (2021) The Power of bad: How negativity effects rule us and how we can rule it. Penguin Books.
- Lupfer, M. B., Weeks, M., & Dupuis, S. (2000). How pervasive is the negativity bias in judgments based on character appraisal? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(11), 1353–1366.
- Extracted on July 2, 2022, from https://positivepsychology.com/3-steps-negativity-bias/