How Negative News Distorts Our Thinking

Three ways negative news engages cognitive biases, trapping us in negativity.

Posted Sep 19, 2019

Nathan Cowley/Pexels
Source: Nathan Cowley/Pexels

Watch, read, or listen to the news, and you’re likely to come away believing that the world is rapidly descending into disaster and chaos, even though many aspects of life have improved dramatically over the last few decades. Exposure to consistent, sensationalized pessimism and negativity has become the norm for those keeping up with the news.

This matters, because research shows us that what we see on the news can significantly impact our mental health. While negative news may influence our thinking through multiple mechanisms, one important consideration is how it interfaces with our cognitive biases, keeping our focus on everything that’s going wrong while blinding us to all the good things around us.

Here are three specific cognitive biases that are activated by negative news to keep us in a state of negativity and how to start making changes to break the cycle.

1. Negativity bias means that we can't turn negative news off.

Negativity bias refers to the fact that humans focus on negative events, information, or emotions more than their positive counterparts. In more dangerous times, this bias may have provided an evolutionary benefit (e.g., we were more likely to notice potential threats to our safety). But in the modern world, our preference for the negative has been harnessed to keep our attention.

This helps explain why the news consistently emphasizes stories on the worst things happening in the world, both on the global (wars) and the local levels (robberies). So not only are we seeking out the negative, but media outlets are actively trying to give us more of it. It’s a double dose.

2. Availability bias means that after we see negativity, we overestimate its significance.

Availability bias (also called the availability heuristic) is the tendency for people to overestimate the importance of the examples that immediately come to mind when considering a topic. These examples are, of course, influenced by whatever you were most recently paying attention to, as well as the things you pay attention to the most.

So if you just watched a news report on local robberies, and then were asked about problems in your town, you might say that robberies were a major issue, even if they were, in general, very uncommon. If you’re constantly watching negative news, the availability bias means your brain may be more likely to remember horrible events and then believe that these relatively infrequent occurrences actually represent the general state of things.

3. Confirmation bias means that we will find evidence to support negativity.

Confirmation bias is the idea that we will actively seek out, remember, and favor information that confirms something we already believe. If you have decided that robberies are common in your hometown, confirmation bias makes it more likely for you to latch onto the data that supports this belief. Your brain will selectively focus on the information that helps your preexisting theory, ignoring conflicting facts.

On a larger scale, if you believe the world is a horrible place, confirmation bias means you’ll be looking out for proof that this is true while making it harder to hear perspectives that suggest the contrary.

Putting It Together

When these three biases are combined, we can see how we become predisposed to seek out, overstate, and cement negativity into place. First, due to the negativity bias, we preferentially consume negative content. We look for negative media, and news organizations—in a desire to maintain attention and viewership—emphasize negative stories.

Next, the availability bias predisposes our brains to over-represent and perseverate on the bad things going on in the world. Finally, due to confirmation bias, we’re more likely to seek out information that supports our idea of the world as a terrible place, and simultaneously reject information stating otherwise.

Breaking the Cycle

To start reducing the detrimental effects of negativity bias, limit your consumption of negativity at the source. It’s one thing to be informed, but quite another to expose yourself to sensationalized negativity for hours a day.

Before and after taking in the news, ask yourself how much you really learned. If you were mostly confirming what you already believed, it probably wasn’t that helpful of an experience. Consider turning off the news when you feel you’re getting angry or otherwise upset. Better yet, try a news fast for a week and see how you feel.

To help mitigate the risks of availability bias, try to put negative information into context. Bad things happen every day, but this doesn’t mean that life is necessarily bad or getting worse. When you hear a negative statistic or about some recent disaster, you shouldn’t just write it off, but instead try to consider whether this is an isolated data point or actually part of a larger trend. The idea is that if you store new information in a more objective manner, it will give you a more balanced perspective when you later use it as a reference.  

Finally, we come to confirmation bias. With so many opinions and data points floating around these days, it’s so easy to find confirmation for basically any opinion. This makes it all the more important to create strategies to lower the negative impact of this bias on our thinking.

One powerful way to start lowering the effects of confirmation bias is to question your beliefs periodically. What are the facts on which your opinions are built? For example, after seeing multiple horrific articles on recent crime, you may think your hometown has become more a more dangerous place to live, but have you actually examined any real data to support this idea?

As a more general intervention, asking, “How could I be wrong?” is a fantastic way to build this questioning tactic into your daily routine.