Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Media

Why Bad News Has Such an Impact

This is why social media companies like to share bad news.

Key points

  • Recent research shows that bad news is much more likely to be spread than good news and is more likely to be shared to your social media feed.
  • A study found that tweets from right- and left-leaning news outlets expressed negative feelings and positions far more often than positive ones.
  • Exposure to greater shared levels of good news about the world can insulate you from the effects of the aversive.

If you have ever had the feeling that there are an awful lot of terrible things happening in the world and that they are all related to things you are directly interested in and involved in, then you are probably reading too much news on social media. Recent research has established that bad news is much more likely to be spread than good news, and it is more likely to be shared and sent to your social media newsfeed by your digital news providers. The questions are: Why does this happen? is it just social media that is making the world seem worse? and, What can you do about it?

A study entitled, “Left- And Right-Leaning News Organizations’ Negative Tweets Are More Likely to Be Shared”1 examined over 140,000 tweets from 24 left-leaning and 20 right-leaning news organisations. This research found that these tweets expressed negative feelings and positions far more often than they expressed positive ones. This was equally true of the left- and right-wing organisations – that is to say, they follow the same strategy. Despite what you may think, the negative content predicted people’s engagement with their organisations’ Twitter feed, whereas the degree of positivity in the tweets did not affect the likelihood that people would engage with the feed again.

There has been very little work conducted on these types of effects in the digital world, but from this research, and our own everyday experiences, we can get a sense that news on social media is typically bad news – both in the sense that it is about bad news and in the sense of its negative impact on readers. People are anxious about the world, and they are made more so by social media.2

One thing to get out of the way very quickly is that most people do not want to be anxious and do not wallow in sharing negative content. It turns out that, outside the bubble of digital news organisations, social media content is generally more positive than negative when the general public post and share content.1

Of course, a potentially toxic level of false positivity can generate its own problems, especially if we think everybody else is doing better than we are, setting up unhealthy comparisons.3 Nevertheless, the findings regarding social media news1 imply that social media companies potentially may want us to read bad news and to be anxious2.

The reasons why it is in the interests of digital news organisations, and probably the hosting social media companies, to keep their users anxious, have been discussed before.2 Anxiety is associated with hypervigilance.4 When you are scared of something, you watch out for it: You scan your world for signs of impending danger much more.5 In terms of social media, this means that you keep using the very thing that makes you anxious.2 The result is that social media companies and/or news organisations get more reads and can sell more advertising. However, the question remains as to why bad news captures our attention more readily. What is the psychology behind this potential manipulation of digital users?

There are two reasons why we may be drawn to the negative, and to understand them, we must understand some basic work conducted far away from social media – usually in the learning or neuroscience laboratories. Many learning theorists interested in what drives behaviour suggest that any stimulus – in this case, a news story on social media – has two broad sets of attributes6: A stimulus (news story) has an "affective" property and a set of "sensory" properties.

The latter are more numerous and define the stimulus in terms of its size, shape, colour, etc.; they give the detail of what the stimulus comprises. There are many such sensory properties, and they can all compete with one another for our attention. We tend to focus consciously on anything that is novel or unexpected, and we unconsciously process the expected very quickly. Thus, our attention, whilst directed to various aspects, is still spread across several of these sensory properties.6

In contrast, the affective property is very simple: It is either good or bad, with no shades of grey. This has been accepted as a view of motivation since Freud, and Behaviourists also accept this as more or less true.6 This characteristic gives processing of the affective properties two distinct advantages over processing sensory properties. Firstly, due to its simplicity, we do not need to waste a lot of time processing its precise elements, meaning we quickly learn about the affective property or aspect.7

Secondly, as it is often directly relevant to our survival, we look to this aspect of the situation before the sensory properties, especially if it threatens us.8 We are disposed to look for the negative and to process this information faster, more immediately, and more readily than the positive.9 The upshot is that social media companies, news companies, and political organisations, can play on this basic set of psychological strategies to keep people reading their sites and material.

Now that we know this, and we know that our basic learning mechanisms are working against us in an unreal digital world, what can we do about it? Firstly, part of the answer is being aware of it: Once you know this type of manipulation can happen, you are prepared to deal with it for what it is. In fact, there is an argument that you’re better off without social media news. However, you can also reduce the effect of aversive cues by harnessing your need for the positive. Just as you need to avoid the dangerous, you need to approach the beneficial.

Exposure to greater shared levels of good news about the world (although probably not too stupidly and toxically good news about an individual’s own achievements) can insulate you from the effects of the aversive. Fear-based political campaigns tend to fail because people, en masse, want to hope10, and sharing good world-news, collaboratively can protect us. Remember, what we really want and need, and what we get drawn to almost automatically are two very different things.

All in all, the news could be regarded as a commodity in the digital world – a product used to sell other, more lucrative products. This brings its analysis into the realm of the analysis of the way that any other stimulus is employed to alter our behaviour. Luckily, there is a vast amount of work that has been done on the ways in which aversive cues impact behaviour, and knowing this, we can recognise it, be aware, and do something about it.

References

1. Bellovary, A., Young, N.A., & Goldenberg, A. (2021). Left-and right-leaning news organizations' negative tweets are more likely to be shared.

2. Reed, P. (2022). Newsfeed anxiety. Psychology Today. Newsfeed Anxiety | Psychology Today

3. Appel, H., Gerlach, A.L., & Crusius, J. (2016). The interplay between Facebook use, social comparison, envy, and depression. Current Opinion in Psychology, 9, 44-49.

4. Cornwell, B.R., Garrido, M.I., Overstreet, C., Pine, D.S., & Grillon, C. (2017). The unpredictive brain under threat: a neurocomputational account of anxious hypervigilance. Biological Psychiatry, 82, 447-454.

5. Freeman, D., Garety, P.A., & Phillips, M. L. (2000). An examination of hypervigilance for external threat in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder and individuals with persecutory delusions using visual scan paths. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A, 53, 549-567.

6. Mackintosh, N.T. (1983). Conditioning and associative learning. Oxford University Press, USA.

7. Grabenhorst, F., & Rolls, E.T. (2010). Attentional modulation of affective versus sensory processing: functional connectivity and a top-down biased activation theory of selective attention. Journal of Neurophysiology, 104, 1649-1660.

8. Vaish A, Grossmann T, Woodward A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 383-403.

9. Miskovic, V., & Keil, A. (2012). Acquired fears reflected in cortical sensory processing: a review of electrophysiological studies of human classical conditioning. Psychophysiology, 49, 1230-1241.

10. Skinner, G. (25.6.2016). How project fear failed to keep Britain in the EU, The Telegraph. https://www.bing.com/search?q=How+project+fear+failed+to+keep+Britain+i…

advertisement
More from Phil Reed D.Phil.
More from Psychology Today
More from Phil Reed D.Phil.
More from Psychology Today