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Why we love bad news

We may be hard-wired for bad news.

Many of us frequently complain about the negativity of the news, particularly now in the economic downturn. The conga line of bruising news blankets consumers in a headline bombardment that is probably making the problem worse. Why do we have this attraction for bad news?

Jim Lehrer's NewHour economics correspondent Paul Solmon did an interesting piece on the cascading effect that consumer pessimism has on our willingness to spend. He said that we are in a state of "learned helplessness". At the worst, continual bad news can even stimulate a state of depression, and people who concentrate on all the bad news work themselves up emotionally and become much more likely to make unwise decisions, like selling all their investments at a huge loss or halting their consumer spending entirely. Even people who don't watch television or read newspapers are getting hit with nuggets of negativity through social networking and informal conversations.

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When everyone is talking about recession, we all feel like something has to change, even if nothing has changed, says Dan Ariely, author of "Predictably Irrational," People may be scared to spend money, scared about losing their jobs and in doing so will restrain their spending. Yet look closely. Consumer sales in entertainment, and drugs like Viagra have increased. Best practice companies with a long-term view are weathering the recession quite well. Social networking in many forms is expanding rapidly.

Is the media negative? Media studies show that bad news far outweighs good news by as much as seventeen negative news reports for every one good news report. Why? The answer may lie in the work of evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists.  Humans seek out news of dramatic, negative events. These experts say that our brains evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment where anything novel or dramatic had to be attended to immediately for survival. So while we no longer defend ourselves against saber-toothed tigers, our brains have not caught up.

Many studies have shown that we care more about the threat of bad things than we do about the prospect of good things. Our negative brain tripwires are far more sensitive than our positive triggers. We tend to get more fearful than happy. And each time we experience fear we turn on our stress hormones.

Another explanation comes from probability theory. In essence, negative and unusual things happen all the time in the world. In his book, Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos explains that if the news is about a small neighborhood of 500 or 5,000, then the possibility that something unusual has happened is low. Unusual things don't happen to individual people very often. That's why very local news like a neighborhood newsletters tends to have less bad news. But in a large city of 1 million, dramatic and negative incidents happen all the time. But most people watch national or worldwide media where news reports come in from large cities at a large scale, so the prevalence of negative stories increase. Add the size of social networking communication, and we expand geometrically bad news. So from evolutionary and neuro-scientific and probability perspectives, we are hard-wired to look for the dramatic and negative, and when we find it, we share it.

What about our personal lives? Psychologist John Gottman at the University of Washington, found that there is kind of thermostat operating in healthy marriages that regulates the balance between positive and negative. He found that relationships run into serious problems when the negative to positive ratio becomes seriously imbalanced. He also found that the magic ratio is five positive to one negative.

Is there any good news in all this? According to positive psychologists we can change our habits, and we can focus on the glass being half-full. When we acquire new habits, our brains acquire "mirror neurons" and develop a positive perspective that can spread to other people like a virus. This is not about being a Pollyanna or "goody-two-shoes," it is about being able to reprogram our brains. To apply this positive psychology and brain research knowledge to our attitudes and behaviors with relation to our current economic conditions, we can encourage our news deliverers to present a balanced and multi-dimensional point of view. Giving us the bad news, so that our brains are hard-wired into a negative state, will just reinforce the current negative economic climate.

 

 

 

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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