Psychology Sociology

Addiction to Negative News

“I got addicted. News, particularly daily news, is more addictive than crack cocaine, more addictive than heroin, more addictive than cigarettes. ” ― Dan Rather

Ever since the 2016 presidential election campaigns began, I’ve found myself watching more news than ever before. Politics has never been such a spectator sport. Every week, there seems to be a new scandal, ridiculous tweet, or large-scale existential threat.

Besides its sheer entertainment value, keeping up with the headlines has its benefits. I’ve been up to date on current events, learned quite a bit about governmental processes, and have been able to incorporate recent events into my sociology classes. But how much is too much? When does headline checking become a compulsive behavior, keeping you trapped in a tailspin of negativity?

We all know negative news is more popular than positive news. As the saying goes, “if it bleeds it leads.” But should we simply blame the news outlets? After all, they are trying to attract our attention.

We may say we want more positive news, but if news organizations actually focused on positive content, we probably wouldn’t watch it. We secretly love negative content. Therefore, we are part of the problem.

So why do we prefer negative news?

Negativity bias keeps us interested in negative news. Negativity bias is a psychological effect causing us to pay more attention to negative things than positive things. In a study called “Bad Is Stronger Than Good” the researchers found:

Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good.

We can all relate to this. Compare how you react to criticism vs. a compliment. Even if the criticism is mild, we dwell on it; but when complimented, we so readily brush it off.

Being more interested in negative things served to keep us alive in the harsh conditions that characterized most of human history. Paying attention to negative things serves to protect us from potential threats in the environment. If you miss a threat, you might be killed. Missing positive things doesn’t generally come with the same risk.

Negative news hijacks this natural inclination toward threat-detection, keeping us coming back for more. We may not even like hearing the news, but on some unconscious level, we are attempting to gain control over our environment when times feel uncertain.

This compulsion to gain control by further reading does not give us the desired sense of control. Rather, it reinforces our perception that there is lurking danger, ramping up the desire to remain on high alert.

Confirmation bias keeps us locked into negative news. Confirmation bias is our tenancy to seek out information that confirms our preexisting beliefs. Rather than challenging our beliefs about the world, we gravitate toward reports that confirm our specific fears.

In our digital era, this is very easy to do. We can subscribe to niche news sources that are most aligned with our beliefs; we can hide Facebook news-feed reports from those with different political ideas from ours; on top of this, we are being fed an algorithmically curated stream of suggested content, suited to fit our preexisting interests.

Rather than confronting the discomfort of challenging our worldview, we would much prefer to stay locked into the negative reports confirming our sense of reality. We would rather have certainty about the existence of our fears than uncertainty about our worldview.

Bad things are more certain than good things. As the saying goes, the only certain things are death and taxes. We expect bad things to happen, and the consequences can be permanent. We are not so optimistic about positive things, expecting them to be fleeting and rare. Therefore, if it’s certainty we’re after, negative news delivers more of it.

Negative news is not pleasant, but the fear of uncertainty is worse. Following every negative news detail gives us the illusion of control by giving us the illusion of certainty. The problem is that we give up real control over our mental state. False certainty comes at a steep cost.

Negative news is a symptom of an unhealthy social environment. We are quick to place blame on the media for feeding us violence and negativity, but perhaps we need to take a closer look at what is driving the demand for this type of news. We need to take a closer look at ourselves and the state of our fragmented society.

Political divisions and dissolved communal bonds have heightened our sense of uncertainty. What was once a sense of national and communal unity has become a battleground for identity. In the battle for certainty, we cling to ideological worldviews, creating scapegoats of our enemies, fueling the flames of fragmentation with negative news.

Beyond the realm of social health, we need to take care of our mental health. If you find yourself seeking out negative news, you are not alone. Our minds naturally seek out negative stimuli, alerting us to potential threats. It becomes a problem when this behavior interferes with your ability to function. If you suffer from compulsive news checking accompanied by repetitive negative thoughts and high levels of anxiety, it may be helpful to seek out a psychologist who specializes in obsessive-compulsive disorders.

If you are interested in talking to a psychologist, Dr. Donna Phair is someone I would recommend. She specializes in helping people deal with repetitive intrusive thoughts that keep them in a state of heightened anxiety, depression, or unnecessary guilt.

If you are interested in checking out a scientifically validated self-help text on this issue, I recommend The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living.

Our cultural addiction to negative news is a symptom of social pathology, resulting in individual mental health issues. When we understand the interaction between social and psychological conditions, we are better able to find solutions.

On the psychological, if your ability to function is impaired, I would encourage you to seek professional support.

On the social level, we need to recognize that the fragmentation, individualism, and political disarray has created a profound sense of uncertainty among a significant portion of the population. Promoting social health means overcoming these barriers to a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose.


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26 comments

  1. I definitely can relate to the feeling of addiction to negative news. I have periods where I completely cut myself off from the news when I feel the addiction is getting out of control.. However I find society forces us to watch the news wherever we go. For example as I am sitting at my office right now, as soon as I look up there is a TV attached to the ceiling that is broadcasting the news to us all. If I go to the break room, there are two gigantic screens airring the 24 hour news channel. When I go to the gym, there are around 25 televisions broadcasting the same news channel! When I sign into facebook, more news! Go on youtube? Yet more!

    And to what end? Why is it that we are forced to watch the news everywhere we go? Being up to date on current events rarely has an impact on day to day life and there’s little to nothing we as individuals can do to impact the events we see in the news.

  2. I have pretty much given up on reading or watching any news on a regular basis. I check in every once in a while, but rarely these days. I have also turned off talk radio. It has been a good 6 months. I have discovered two things. One, the same problems that would really anger me are still there, unchanged. Secondly, life is so much better when I stopped paying attention to it. You can’t change anything but yourself.

  3. Steve,
    I god rid of my TV many years ago and haven’t missed it. Energy goes out of me when I’m exposed to that rat-a-tat barrage of tinny voices harping on the crisis of the day. When I do watch TV, I note the same stories get pounded to death, such that it seems the reporters can’t find anything else to offer.

    For the non-television watcher, the whole world of mass media seems surreal, a mass hallucination or nightmare that has little to do with day-to-day life. The issue is not so much “negative news,” but lack of depth. The Florida school shooting, for instance, was tragic, but I would claim we live in a culture of violence that has been going on since the Europeans discovered the Americas, maybe even since the Roman Empire or before. Let’s put these things in a historical perspective and try to understand the larger picture.

    It would be nice to see effort given to understanding the complex issues involved rather than knee-jerk judgments, name-calling, blaming. and arbitrary pronouncements about what should be done.

    Bottom line, for me, is that it’s not just about “negative” or “positive” news, but about education and inquiry into the things that people deem important and why they are considered so.

  4. It would appear that an unhealthy social environment is mainly the result of the breakdown in healthy families? Modern media, especially television and movies, appear to glorify this increasingly negative trend. We are constantly being bombarded with new standards of social acceptance that hitherto have been deemed to be unacceptable. The politically correct are endorsing, and often enforcing, these new standards of morality.
    Human nature, of itself, is geared to the negative. It needs educating, but unfortunately many of our places of education are also at the forefront of promoting the new standards of our so called enlightened society!
    A brief, superficial comment to your excellent article, but perhaps you appreciate the sentiments expressed.

  5. Excellent and timely piece! What I’ve noticed in myself is a strong tendency to focus on short news stories and commentary without making time for the longer stories that put the news in context. I work on making time for the latter because I do believe they’re more important in deepening my understanding of what’s going on.

    I also make a beeline for stories about people organizing to dig us out of the hole we’re in as a country. On one hand, the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High themselves can hardly be reported in a positive light, but the response of those very articulate and courageous young people is inspiring to the max — and it’s eliciting constructive responses across the U.S. Same goes for #MeToo. On one hand, it bums me out big-time that the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault comes as news to so many people. On the other I believe that, as Adrienne Rich put it, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”

    1. I like that quote. A commitment to the truth means talking about negative things. The issue is not negative reports, but rather, a problematic/ compulsive relation to negative reports.

  6. I think people today tend to get zoomed in on the negatives, because that’s what’s broadcasted on T.V., on the radio, and it’s everywhere in the papers, and, we get sucked into this vicious cycle of feeling addicted to the bad news, which in turn, somehow, propels the bad news to keep on happening, because bad news sells a whole lot more! And we need to try to shift from that.

  7. Very true!! Look at everyone when a car wreck happens…we all slow down to see what happened. I think it has to do with subconsciously we are trying to make ourselves feel better that it didn’t or isn’t happening to us.

    1. Perhaps that is it. My personal experience is a bit different. Recently, I’ve been very aware of when I’m making negative judgments, thinking about the evolutionary advantage of my judgment. For example, when driving, I’ve noticed that I’ve judged drivers with cars that have large dents in them. When digging underneath the surface-level seemingly superficial judgment, I noticed I’m also more cautious around these drivers. When it comes down to it, my judgment is based on taking their dents as a sign of potential recklessness/ danger. Therefore, the negativity is an evolutionary adaptation to avoid danger. Since this doesn’t trigger intense fear that prevents me from driving, It’s not a big deal – similar to the average news consumer. It becomes an issue if this were to develop into an obsessive thought, followed by ritual compulsions that prevented me from being able to function effectively in my daily environment. This is why I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to be aware of the adaptive purpose of our negative responses, while mindful to keep a healthy relationship to negativity, which doesn’t include avoidance.

  8. Great article.
    Maybe I also have this kind of addiction. When I read bad news, I feel angry. Even, I couldn’t sleep because I always think about it. What I did is I closed the social media for several days. But then I was tempted to open it again hoping I read some good news. I found some, but I rarely read those. Then, finally I read the bad news… and it happened again.

    1. You seem well aware of this phenomenon within yourself. I think it’s quite a normal response, yet has the potential to spiral into compulsive checking and disruptive thought patterns. It looks like you tried to avoid the negativity by closing the account, then reopening it, hoping to see more positive things. I would argue avoidance can be just as problematic as compulsive checking. Both can produce further anxiety by reinforcing the need for a fight or flight response when faced with negativity. The fight response is compulsive checking whereas the flight response is avoidance. Avoidance reinforces the anxious thought of a potential mortal threat. This is why cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on intentional exposure to negative stimuli. This therapeutic technique is also a life lesson. Life is full of danger, uncertainty, and tragedy. Despite this, we need to courageously move forward amidst the negativity, pursuing a meaningful path, and telling the truth, however uncomfortable it may be.

  9. Hello Steve,
    I don’t know if you remember me, but I was one of your Honors students a few semesters ago! I was just curious about your thoughts on this topic in relation to something that cannot/should not be presented by the media in a positive light? For example, it would be difficult and disrespectful for the media to report the Parkland shooting in which 17 innocent lives were taken in a positive light. Events like this are not ones that should be skipped over by the media, and America immediately jumped into action on social media over this when it was reported on. Does this imply that we care more about this event because it was negative? Would we care less about a person saving 17 people from a fire?
    Additionally, I think a lot of people are looking for a way to cope with this tragedy and insight change using negative stimuli towards opposing parties. The tweets I see are basically “you’re an idiot if you think guns are more important than kids” or “those liberals can’t even let families mourn before turning this into a way to take away our guns” which are negative attacks on the opposing party. Do you think this is a more beneficial tactic to insighting change, or would a more positive and amicable approach to your opposing party work just as well or better? I think that the shock factor of seeing someone vehemently disagree with you is what it takes these days to get people to actually think about the other sides perspective (the bad is processed more thoroughly than the good), and this might be why we focus on the negative. This could also mean that we have created a culture in which in order to evoke positive outcomes in society we must present the most negative impact of that change imaginable. Would this then be an addiction, or a societal necessity? We are all technically addicted to oxygen, but it isn’t seen in such a negative light because everyone is dependent on it. Thoughts?

    1. I do remember! Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I’ve been working in the addiction field recently and this post started after I received a request to do a presentation for a distress line group. They seem to be encountering a great deal of callers who are fixated on talking about negative news. This post is my contemplation on the issue. I started by thinking of it in terms of an addiction, but ended up realizing it’s more of an obsessive compulsive issue. Of course, there are various degrees of severity. On the issue of the value of negative news, I for sure agree. We need to be aware of current events and still need to advocate for social change when necessary. The issue is not negative news, but a problematic relation to the news. Since are brains are more sensitive to threat, it’s normal that we tend to focus on it more. But when we take this too far and compulsively use it as reassurance, we become trapped in an unhealthy mental state that prevents is from being our most effective in contributing to meaningful change that doesn’t perpetuate a divisive culture.

    2. About addiction and compulsion — I believe (based mostly on my own experience and what I see around me, not scientific evidence) that they do play a role here, in that negative news and online disputes can provide an adrenaline rush that is not unpleasant. If the adrenaline rush gets channeled into constructive action, it’s often a good thing, but when we’re reading these outrageous stories and infuriating Twitter threads in isolation, the rush has nowhere to go so It tends to settle in our bellies and nerves as just another layer of stress.

      1. I do think you’re on to something here. Addiction was my initial frame, yet I ended up focusing on fear responses, more suited to anxiety disorders. But yes, I do think some “news junkies” may not be reacting to a fear response, but rather, one of excitement, inciting the dopamine reward pathways instead.

    3. Also, after I responded to this comment, I’ve responded to others that might provide further clarity. Feel free to take a look at those responses. I’m curious what you think.

  10. Yet another addiction…do you think we are prone to getting addicted to anything and everything? Negative news is up there with social media…this weird urge we seem to have to know what is going on…when in many ways life is much more rewarding when you haven’t a clue! 😄

    1. I think it’s possible to become addicted to just about anything. With that being said, perhaps the title for this post is not the most accurate for the approach I took toward the subject. I thing the main problem here is obsessive compulsive disorder.

      1. Ah yes. Very true. Myself, I like to check I’ve locked the door even though I’ve just done it… but that is far from a serious disorder…some folks have it really bad eh?

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