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Why does so much news seem negative? Human attention may be to blame

Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Ever wonder why there's so much bad news out there? Maybe it's because people find bad news more interesting than good news.

A new study involving more than 1,000 people across 17 countries spanning every continent but Antarctica concludes that, on average, people pay more attention to negative news than to positive news.

The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hint that this human bias toward negative news might be a large part of what drives negative news coverage. But the results also revealed that this negative bias was not shared by everyone, and some even had a positive bias -- a sign that there may be a market for positive news.

"In a period during which news around the world is especially wrought with negativity, this subject is of obvious significance," the study authors wrote.

Lead author Stuart Soroka, a political scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said he and his colleagues were interested in the psychology of negativity biases -- the tendency for people to pay more attention to negative information than positive information -- and the role it might play in shaping the news.

Among academics, one explanation for this bias was that "journalists were angry people and skeptics and they produced a bunch of negative content, and that was bad -- as in bad for democracy and bad for people reading news," Soroka said. "Our suspicion was that the way news looked wasn't purely a function of what journalists felt but more about what audiences responded to."

 

There are some evolutionary reasons as to why negativity bias exists, the scientists pointed out. For one thing, it can be much riskier to ignore negative information (a storm is coming) than good news (a dog rescued a boy from a tree). Paying attention to negative news, the researchers said, is generally an effective survival strategy.

While previous studies have examined the negativity bias, they've largely focused on subjects who were white, American, college-aged young adults. Soroka said he wanted to see whether the results of those studies could be generalized to the rest of the world.

To get a more global view, the scientists recruited 1,156 people in 17 countries: Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, France, Ghana, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Senegal, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The researchers went out of their way to find a wider range of study participants whenever they could. They recruited from marketplaces in Ghana, for example, and took their lab gear to a shed in a construction compound in India.

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