young troubled woman using laptop at home

Why are we so obsessed with bad news?

  • January 19, 2021
young troubled woman using laptop at home
Bad news dominates the headlines more than ever before, but at the same time, we just can’t look away

These past 10 months have been nothing but a barrage of tragedy and disaster, with terrible headlines dominating the news daily. But even worse is the fact that we can’t seem to get enough of them, which is part of the reason why these stories are so prevalent in the news cycle: we are more interested in terrifying headlines than happy ones, clicking on them and devouring their dreadful contents.

This isn’t just conjecture though. Our proclivity for bad news was proven in a study by Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka, two researchers at McGill University. In the experiment, which they falsely told their subjects was one where they were investigating eye tracking, Trussler and Soroka had people from the university choose a few articles to read. They told them they had to read the whole article, but it didn’t matter what article they read, and found that the vast majority of their subjects instinctively chose more negative stories. When left to their own devices, they were more interested in these stories, which reflects a larger societal occurrence. We bring up and discuss these issues with friends. We may not enjoy reading about the series of catastrophes that define this period in human existence, but we are drawn to them. The question is, why?

One possible reason is that it is an evolutionary response. This theory states that to survive, we have evolved to react more strongly and quickly to things that can be perceived as threats. This means that we involuntarily see bad news as a danger to our wellbeing, as a warning that we need to pay attention to. This not only explains our increased tendency to look at negative news but also supports the fact that, on average, people respond faster to negative words than to positive words. Studies, like one conducted by Dutch researchers Ap Dijksterhuis and Henk Aarts, have shown the existence of something many psychologists refer to as a negativity bias. This essentially means that it isn’t necessarily a choice to look at bad news- we naturally detect negative stimuli more quickly.

Another more subjective viewpoint on the reasons behind our obsession with bad news stems from the idea that most people see the world as a good place (or at least a place that is better than it really is). The reason this leads to our focus on the bad is that, since we think that everything will work out in the end, the unfortunate events and circumstances we see in news headlines come as more of a shock, thus making them more noticeable in our eyes. Although this justification is somewhat relative, there is evidence to back it up that relates to a cognitive bias (which is a term in psychology that basically refers to human tendency to see things differently than they actually are) known as illusory superiority. Illusory superiority happens when people overestimate the positive qualities and abilities of themselves and their own lives (especially relative to others). This obviously relates to the central idea behind this hypothesis- that bad news surprises us because we see our lives as better and free from “badness”. It was also proven by many researchers, like Swedish professor Ola Svenson, who found that, when surveying drivers, 80% of respondents rated themselves in the top 30% of all drivers.

A final explanation is that we are more intrigued by the gloomy stories we see because we are so used to them. In other words, we look at bad news because it’s the only news we see. One only has to open the CNN or Fox News app to see that this is true. The very front page of both sites (and most other news outlets) is dominated by scary, depressing, or frustrating stories, and in most cases, the reader has to do considerable scrolling in order to find anything positive, or even any neutral article. Our interest in these news articles undoubtedly causes them to become more prevalent (as mentioned before), but articles had to exist in the first place for us to be interested. There is always bad news in the world, and there are always people to report on it. This is especially true nowadays, since we have access to so many devices that can bring us news stories from any number of organizations, and we can learn about these stories hours, and even sometimes minutes, after they happen. Being constantly exposed to these negative stories could cause a sort of desensitization, where we begin to have less of a reaction to them. This could cause us to instinctively want more in order to experience the feelings associated with learning about horrific events that we are used to. In theory, this creates a positive feedback loop of sorts.

There are multiple ideas as to how and why we feel the way we do about bad news, many of which are not mutually exclusive. However, the one thing that cannot be denied is that we, as fortunate people in a first-world country who are somewhat separated from the terrible occurrences in the world, feel an involuntary compulsion to see these things, even though most people when asked would say they prefer good news to bad news. It is important to think about and come to conclusions on this because, once we understand why we do this, we can start finding ways to manage the effects of this exposure, which can include the feelings of sadness and helplessness that many people feel during quarantine while witnessing the world crumbling around them.

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