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Worldwide, humans are more responsive to negative news, study suggests

Within each country, there are considerable variations in responses to news content at the individual level, the study also found.

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Findings suggest that “humans around the world are more activated by negative news coverage” than by positive coverage.

Many people complain that journalists, particularly in the United States, focus too much on negative news.

But that raises the proverbial chicken-or-the-egg question: Plenty of research suggests that humans tend to give more weight to negative information than to positive information — perhaps for evolutionary reasons. Paying attention to the negative “news” happening around them (signs of an approaching storm or other impending danger) undoubtedly helped our ancestors to survive.

Who, then, is responsible for the prevalence of negative media stories? Journalists or the people who consume the news items they produce?

A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) offers an intriguing answer. It found that Americans are not the only people who respond strongly to negative news content. People in many other countries are similarly drawn to media stories with a negative tone.

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That finding suggests, say the authors, that “humans around the world are more activated by negative news coverage” than by positive coverage. Journalists may be off the hook.

But the study also found that within each country, there are considerable variations in responses to news content at the individual level.

That finding highlights “the potential for more positive content,” say the researchers, and suggests “that there may be reason to reconsider the conventional journalistic wisdom that ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’”

How the study was done

For the study, an international team of researchers led by Stuart Soroka, a professor of communication studies and political science at the University of Michigan, recruited 1,156 volunteers from 17 countries on six continents. The volunteers watched seven BBC World News stories (coded for their level of negativity) on a laptop computer while wearing noise-canceling headphones and sensors on their fingers that measured various physiological reactions, including heart rate and skin conductance (a gauge of emotional arousal).

An analysis of all that data revealed that, on average, people exhibited higher variability in their heart rate and greater skin conductance while watching the negative news stories than while watching the positive ones — a finding that suggested they were more drawn to the negative ones.

But there were also significant differences in the ways individuals reacted to the stories.

“Our results suggest that negativity biases in reactions to news content are not a uniquely American phenomenon,” the authors write. “Reactions to video news content reveal a mean tendency for humans to be more aroused by and attentive to negative news. That said, there also is considerable individual-level variation around that mean, and, in some instances, country-level samples would not on their own suggest statistically significant negativity biases in responsiveness to video news content.”

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Limitations and implications

The study comes with several caveats. Most notably, the study’s participants were shown British-made BBC news videos. Although captions were provided for non-English speakers, the tone and style of those broadcasts may have elicited responses different from what would be typical if the participants had watched broadcasts produced in their own countries.

Still, the study involved a large number of people from many different countries and cultures, making its results difficult to dismiss.

“In a period during which news around the world is especially wrought with negativity, this subject is of obvious significance,” Soroka and his colleagues write.

“Negativity biases affect news selection, and thus also news production, as well as citizens’ attitudes about current affairs,” they explain.

The researchers believe their findings show “that audience-seeking news media need not necessarily be drawn to predominantly negative content. Even as the average tendency may be for viewers to be more attentive to and aroused by negative content, there would appear to be a good number of individuals with rather different or perhaps more mutable preferences.”

“News producers should not underestimate the audience for positive news content,” they add.

FMI: You’ll find the study on the PNAS website.