Why is the news always so depressing?

The 

Negativity Bias

, explained.

What is the Negativity Bias?

The Negativity bias is a cognitive bias that results in adverse events having a more significant impact on our psychological state than positive events. Negativity bias occurs even when adverse events and positive events are of the same magnitude, meaning we feel negative events more intensely.1

 

Where this bias occurs

Negativity bias is a well-studied and long-understood concept. Negativity bias causes our emotional response to negative events to feel amplified compared to similar positive events. Negativity bias is linked to loss aversion, a cognitive bias that describes why the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.2

Individual effects

For instance, when presented with an opportunity to win $150 or lose $100, with equal probability, studies have found that many people choose not to take this opportunity because the risk of losing $100 is too great – even though, in reality, expected return, in this case, is positive (the benefit should objectively outweigh the cost).

Systemic effects

Being too risk-averse and letting negativity bias cloud decision-making can have significant consequences on outcomes. For corporations in competitive and volatile markets, negativity bias can significantly affect competitive advantages.

An example of systemic challenges resulting from the negativity bias can be seen in the organizational case of Kodak, once the world’s leading film photography company. When the photography market began shifting towards digital photography, Kodak was too risk-averse to innovate their products, which were traditional film cameras and accessories. Their negativity bias prevented them from seizing their competitive advantage and market presence to continue to develop into a successful photography company. Instead, Kodak focused on what they identified as their core strength, film photography, which eventually became an outdated industry. This business decision made Kodak lose its competitive position to rival photography companies like Sony, Fujifilm, and Canon, all of which adapted to the changing photography landscape. As a result, Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2002.5

Negativity bias can prevent organizations from innovating and taking necessary risks to adjust to changing consumer needs. By avoiding negativity bias from clouding decision-making, corporations and individuals can make better, calculated decisions, without bias.

 

Why it happens

Paul Rozin and Edward Poyzman, researchers who coined negativity bias, have identified four elements that explain why the bias manifests. The four elements are negative potency, steeper negative gradients, negativity dominance, and negative differentiation.6

Negative Potency

Negative potency describes the idea that though negative and positive events or memories may be of equal in terms of magnitude or emotionality, that they are not necessarily equally salient.6

Steeper Negative Gradients

Rozin and Royzman refer to both negative and positive gradients as the perceived emotional slope of an event. For example, an upcoming dental surgery’s negative experience is regarded as more and more negative as the date of the appointment approaches, meaning there is a steep negative gradient. Rozin and Royzman found that adverse events are perceived as increasingly negative, thus have a steeper gradient than positive events are. Positive developments then have a flatter gradient in comparison to adverse events.6

Negativity Dominance

Rozin and Royzman describe negative dominance as the tendency for positive and negative events to skew towards an overall negative interpretation. An overall negative interpretation is in contrast to the actual average sum of our positive and negative components. To summarize we typically view the whole of an event or moment as more negative than the sum of its parts.6

Negative Differentiation

Negative differentiation states that since negative events are by nature more complicated than their positive counterparts, we require a more significant mobilization of cognitive resources to minimize the consequences of the event and deal with the experience, making it a more memorable and intense experience.7

Negative differentiation is consistent with a substantial amount of research indicating that negative emotions are more complicated than positive emotions. Research studies have suggested that as a result of this complexity, human vocabulary describing negative emotions and events is much more vibrant and descriptive than positive vocabulary.8

Why it is important

Negativity bias significantly impacts how we make decisions, motivate ourselves, and interact with one another.

Decision-Making

We should be aware of the negativity bias as cognitive biases can significantly impact our decision-making ability. When making decisions, individuals who fall privy to negativity bias will typically outweigh or focus too heavily on an outcome’s potential costs or negatives.1 Skewing risk, and possible adverse outcomes could lead to poor decision-making.

Motivation

Psychological research suggests that negative bias impacts our motivation and ability to complete tasks. We have more motivation to complete a job when we are doing so to avoid a loss than if we are motivated by a means to gain something. Based on whether an action is framed in a positive or negative context can change how driven we are to complete a task.9

How to avoid it

To avoid negativity bias, we must first understand the bias and acknowledge how it can develop in our thinking and decision-making. Once a general understanding grows, we can do the following to avoid negative bias:

Mindfulness

A study conducted in 2011 by Kiken and Shook found that practicing mindful breathing, a form of meditation, increased positive judgments, and engaged higher levels of optimism in participants. Compared to other control groups, participants who practiced mindful breathing performed better at tests where they were required to categorize positive stimuli. Researchers identified that mindfulness practice led to significant positive impacts on the negativity bias.11

Focus on the Positive

Negativity bias affects us by making one feel negative events or react to adverse events more strongly than positive ones. An exercise to curb this bias would include focusing on positive events and savoring those events to create positive memories. When enjoying an experience, attempt to engage fully in pleasant sensations, and reflect on the positive developments occurring at the moment.12

How it all started

Negativity bias is assumed to have been a natural adaptive evolutionary function, developed by humans thousands of years ago. By continually being exposed to immediate environmental threats, our ancestors developed negativity bias to survive.13

Psychologist Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman first documented negativity bias in their 2001 paper “Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion.” The paper hypothesized that both humans and animals give higher weight to negative entities and that this manifested in 4 different ways: negative potency, steeper negative gradients, negativity dominance, and negative differentiation. These four concepts have been widely publicized and used to analyze negativity bias. The researchers suggested that adverse events seem to be dominant as negative entities are more contagious than positive entities.6

Example 1 - Stimuli

A study conducted in 1998 by Tiffany Ito and colleagues concluded that humans react more intensely to negative stimuli, be it pictures, videos, or words. Based on the results of the study, individuals naturally responded much more intensively to negative stimuli, then in comparison to neutral or positive stimuli. The research study was conducted by showing 33 different study participants’ photos and measuring their brains’ electrical activity to identify their responses. The researchers presented neutral images (such as a plate, and an electrical outlet), positive photos (such as people enjoying themselves), and negative images (such as a gun pointed to the individual holding the picture).14

The research study found that images that generated the most brain activity, also referred to as Event-Related Brain Potentials (ERPs) occurred when participants held the negative images. Thus, researchers of the study concluded that negative stimuli more strongly influence individuals.3

Example 2 - Media

We can feel as though sometimes the news is filled with only negative and dark stories. Researchers initially hypothesized that this was because negative coverage is more attractive and attention-grabbing for potential readers and customers, especially compared to positive cover.

A research study conducted by researcher Dr. Soroka and her colleagues in 2019 investigated whether demand for negative information is as prevalent as assumed and if that desire for negative stories is globally consistent. Her study reported results from 17 different countries, across six continents. The study examined the psychophysiological reactions to video news content and the effect on individuals of consuming these videos. The study concluded that globally, the average human is physiologically more activated by negative news stories than positive ones.15

Summary

What it is

Negativity bias is a cognitive bias that explains why negative events or feelings typically have a more significant impact on our psychological state than positive events or feelings, even when they are of equal proportion. Negativity Bias is closely linked to loss aversion, a cognitive bias that describes why the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.

Why it happens

Researchers Paul Rozin and Edward Poyzman have identified four elements that explain why negativity bias manifests itself. The four elements are negative potency, steeper negative gradients, negativity dominance, and negative differentiation.

Example 1 – Stimuli

A research study conducted by Ito and colleagues in 1998, found that study participants responded more intensively to negative stimuli than to positive or neutral stimuli. The research study was conducted by showing 33 participants’ photos and measuring their brain’s electrical activity. The research study found that images that generated the most brain activity occurred when participants viewed the negative images.

Example 2 – Media

Negative news coverage is more attractive and attention-grabbing to readers, so news cycles globally focus on negative news stories. A research study conducted by Dr.Soroka and colleagues in 2019 assessed the global demand for negative information in news cycles across 17 countries. Her research found that globally, the average human is physiologically more activated by negative news stories than positive ones.

How to avoid it

To avoid negativity bias, after we develop an understanding of the bias, they can prevent it by using the following techniques. First, we can recognize when they have negativity bias or overfocus on negative thoughts and then focus on challenging them and replacing them with useful ones. Using techniques like Albert Ellis’ ABC technique can aid in this. Additionally, practicing mindfulness, and focusing on positive thoughts can all assist in curtailing negativity bias.