Why Are We Obsessed with Bad News?


Everywhere one seems to turn around at the moment, bad news lurks! It is one of the most wearing aspects of life as it is today. History tells us that humans need hope to see through dark moments or events but today, we’re obsessed with bad news. What is this negativity bias phenomenon and how will understanding it help you?

The emphasis on negative news is one that has been widely studied by psychologists. It applies in a range of areas, including investor behaviour by Tversky & Kahneman in Prospect Theory (1992) and Tuner in Do Leaders Make a Difference (2004). Insightful studies demonstrating how widely the phenomenon extends and how understanding it can lead to breakthrough outcomes. 

Three things make it up:

  1. Negativity bias 
  2. Overestimation bias
  3. Confirmation bias

Understanding Negativity Biases Further

Negativity bias is simply an acknowledgement that people focus more on negative events, information, or feelings than positive counterparts. Historically in times of survival, this bias may have been evolutionarily beneficial. Today, survival is a given, so opportunism leverages this negativity bias to get and keep our attention. This context helps us understand why the news systematically emphasizes stories about the worst things happening in the world. We are not only naturally seeking out the negative, but the media is happily giving us more of it. It’s a double whammy!

Overestimation bias is the tendency for individuals to overestimate the importance of information that immediately comes to mind when considering a particular topic. Naturally we are influenced by what we pay attention to, both recently and in general. For example, if you’re constantly seeing negative news (think about now, stats about infection rates and deaths dominate the headlines), overestimation bias means your brain is more likely to remember tragic events and then believe that these deaths represent the general state of things. Every death is tragic however there are far more positive recovery stories – the latter of which (is positive) does not feature dominantly in most news.

Confirmation bias is the idea that we actively seek, remember, and favour information that supports or confirms what we already believe. If you have decided that break & enter crime is common in your city, confirmation bias means you are more likely to grab onto any information that supports this existing belief. Your brain selectively focuses on information that supports your pre-existing belief and ignores any conflicting information or ideas.

It becomes easy to see when the three biases converge, we become predisposed to find, overstate, and lock negativity into place. 

Changing the Record

The first best step, and probably an obvious one, is to limit the intake of news. You can also assess the relevance of news to see whether or not it is valuable. Additionally, putting things in context is helpful to limit overestimation bias and protect again confirmation bias. 

There are other techniques that can help change your thought processes and break the negativity cycle. Read “Getting Through Negative Things” to rediscover them.

In the end, the idea is processing new information in a healthier (for you) manner also reduces the risks of biases later on. 

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