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Even if we say we prefer good news, we're wired to pay more attention to bad news.
And while it might feel like the world is becoming a more scary, dangerous place, many things are actually better now than ever, and social media might be the antidote to our fears.

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Sources:

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Images:

https://ourworldindata.org/homicides
https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/young-female-clerk-working-at-the-computer-rear-and-front-view-gm668677398-122142657
https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/employees-in-different-states-of-mind-gm1023100420-274628357
[♪ INTRO].

If you read the headlines today, you probably come away feeling like the world is a scary, dangerous, hopeless place. But in reality, many things are better now than ever.

Worldwide homicide rates have largely been dropping for centuries, for example, and global life expectancy keeps climbing. So why all the bad news? It’s easy to put the blame on the media for running sensational, negative news stories that’ll sell papers; if it bleeds, it leads, as they say.

But who’s buying those papers? Like, we are. And there’s a psychological reason for that.

Even if we say we prefer good news, we are wired to pay more attention to bad news. But here’s a surprise: social media might be the antidote. The media isn’t making it up: there really is higher consumer demand for negative news.

In 2007, the Pew Research Center released data on. US consumer news preferences over the last two decades. Throughout that time, the most popular topics stayed pretty reliable: war and terrorism, bad weather, and human-made and natural disasters.

Bad news all around. A 2012 study found a clue as to why. In that study, participants were hooked up to biosensors to watch a series of news stories.

The negative stories brought on stronger and more sustained reactions in the participants’ heart rates and skin conductance levels than positive stories did. As an explanation, the researchers in that study pointed to a long-established phenomenon: negativity bias. That’s the tendency for negative things, all else being equal, to have a bigger effect on us than positive things.

Specifically, negative things stick out more in your mind and tend to outweigh any other good things. Your brain also processes the negative more thoroughly than the positive. For example, people tend to describe negative things with more complex language than they do positive things.

The weird thing is that there’s also a positivity bias. That’s the tendency for people to form mostly positive theories about reality. And that contradiction, in itself, also has a name: positive-negative asymmetry.

Basically, we assume things will be mostly good, but we still place more importance on bad things. For one thing, they’re more rare, and for another, ignoring them is a bigger risk than paying them too much attention. The thinking is that this helps us survive.

Assuming things will turn out okay motivates people to explore the world, whether that’s venturing out of their cave or asking someone out on a date. But at the same time, being vigilant about the negative helps people avoid danger while they’re doing that exploring. That may be why negative headlines are so good at grabbing our attention.

A 1991 study had participants read negative, positive, and neutral words printed in different colors and asked them to name the colors as quickly as possible. It took longest for them to name the colors of negative words, and according to researchers, that’s because they couldn’t help but pay attention to the word itself. In a study from 2003, researchers flashed negative and positive words at participants at a pace too fast for them to consciously register.

They still got a sense for the words on a subconscious level, but didn’t read them exactly. Still, those participants got a stronger impression of the negative words than the positive words. And a 2014 study found that even people who said they preferred positive news stories still gravitated toward negative ones.

In other words, time and again, it's been shown that we're more aware of, and drawn to, the negative. But believe it or not, there may be a glimmer of hope, thanks to social media, of all things. In 2010, the New York Times released an analysis of over 7,000 articles, showing the more positive an article was, the more likely it was to be shared, and to go viral.

And another study in 2017 showed that people using YouTube and Twitter prefer sharing positive content over negative content. Why is this? It may come down to the difference between how people use social media and how they use traditional media.

We consume the news as outside observers, but we use social media as active participants. People post, tweet, and email links to signal things about themselves and communicate with the rest of the world. And just like in real life, if you’re a Debbie Downer who fills people’s feeds with too much sad, scary, or maddening content, you risk turning people off.

And that could sway our feeds to feel more positive. However, researchers note that studying emotional valence, whether something is perceived as positive or negative, is different from studying what researchers call arousal, which tracks whether or not something activates the nervous system and helps us feel. It turns out that high arousal makes more of an impact on the decision to share something than whether it’s positive or negative, especially if what’s being shared taps into feelings of awe, anger, or anxiety.

And that might explain why some people feel like the tone and the content of what’s being shared online has changed a lot in recent years. It’s not ALL adorable cat pictures, unfortunately. But don’t count out the bad news.

Researchers hypothesize that negativity bias is there to keep us vigilant about what can hurt us, and the media is there to keep us abreast of threats, problems, and wrongdoing in the world. If we shield ourselves from negative news, we can’t do anything to protect ourselves, or to make it right. So yes, enjoy that feel-good story your aunt shared on Facebook, but don’t discount the gloomy headlines either.

Those headlines help us make the world a better place. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and a huge thanks to our patrons, who we love and appreciate every single day here at SciShow headquarters. If you’re interested in helping us make awesome videos, head on over to patreon.com/scishow to get started. [♪ OUTRO].