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.