Negativity Bias

Media & Technology

Trussler and Soroka (2014)

Are we more interested in negative than in positive news coverage?

Background

In line with the common saying “no news is good news”, current events, as reported by newspapers and news networks, are overwhelmingly bad news. Traditionally, this phenomenon has been explained in terms of biased news coverage: while massive layoffs, gruesome crimes and cheating scandals never fail to make the headlines, we rarely hear about companies hiring, peaceful communities, or celebrity couples living a happy life. However, as Trussler and Soroka (2014) point out, this supply-side perspective is insufficient: if media companies focus on “bad news” as they compete for the public’s attention, then “news may be negative (…) because that is the kind of news that people are interested in”. Indeed, this seems to be confirmed by the kind of content  that people share on social media.

According to Trussler and Soroka (2014), the reason lies in our Negativity Bias: the fact that we have a propensity to weigh negative information more heavily than positive information. In their view, this bias has an evolutionary origin: as theorized by Shoemaker (1996), “human brains are ‘hardwired’ to survey their environment and to prefer news about deviant and threatening events” simply because they are more relevant to survival. Verywellmind.com explains: “our tendency to pay more attention to bad things and overlook good things is likely a result of evolution. Earlier in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more attuned to danger and who paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive. This meant they were also more likely to hand down the genes that made them more attentive to danger.” This theory is further supported by neurocognitive studies, which have shown that negative stimuli produce a much stronger response in the brain than positive or neutral ones (see, for instance Cacioppo et alia, 1998). Likewise, it would explain why “losses loom larger than gains” in our system 1, as first pointed out by Kahneman and Tversky (1979) in their Prospect Theory. If our brain automatically gives more importance to negative information, then we should expect the latter to weigh more heavily on our behavior—be it attention, judgment, decision-making, or memory.

Participants & Procedures

100 undergraduate students from McGill University (Montréal, Québec, Canada)

Participants entered a room in groups of up to 6, sat at a computer, and were told that the purpose of the study was to track their eye movement as they watched television news stories. For this, a baseline measurement was needed, so subjects were asked to browse a web page with recent news articles and to choose the ones they wanted to read. This selection task was, in reality, the true object of the experiment. Each participant was shown 30 randomly selected articles from a pool of 50 that had made the news in the previous 2 weeks and covered a broad range of topics related to national (Canadian) politics. To measure Negativity Bias, each headline was scored by three different coders on both tone (positive, neutral, negative) and focus (policy, strategy, or neither.) While “policy” articles focused on policy proposals (either by the government or the opposition), “strategy” articles focused on the political “game”. After 3 to 9 minutes, participants watched 2 mildly positive or negative news stories, and were finally asked to complete a survey with questions related to their interest in politics and political information.

Findings

Using a fairly complex model accounting for both position (column, row) and time (between 3 and 9 minutes), the researchers found that positive stories were 26% less likely to be selected than negative ones. However, the effect was only significant at p<.10. Interestingly, the effect was greater when participants were politically interested. Even more importantly, participants’ selections did not vary with their preferences as expressed in response to such survey questions as: “Is the media too negative and cynical about politicians and politics?” This, the researchers reasoned, could explain “why negative and strategic news frames [are] repeatedly presented in audience-seeking media” even though “they do not appear to match the public’s stated preferences for news”. Indeed, the reality is that there is a gap, within the public, between preferences and behavior: “behavioral results do not conform to attitudinal ones. Regardless of what participants say, they exhibit a preference for negative news content” that portrays politicians in a partisan and/or cynical way. Finally, the researchers concluded that “the Internet makes the situation even more acute, because it allows for a much greater degree of consumer choice. Online competition for readers may lead to particularly negative and strategic coverage.”

IA Tip

This study does require modification, not only because it is technically complex, but also because it involves a high level of deception. Fortunately, it is also easy to simplify and align with IA requirements. For instance, students could create positive and negative headlines on similar issues and ask participants to indicate their interest in (or likelihood of reading) the corresponding article.

Citation

Trussler, M., Soroka, S. (2014). Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 19, 360-379. 

https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161214524832