Why we love bad news (and how to break our addiction to it)

How the Negativity Bias keeps us coming back for more unpleasant news

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Turn on the news these days and you’d be forgiven for thinking the world is about to end. From politics to climate change to the economy, negative and bad news surrounds us everywhere we go.

The problem isn’t just that there are terrible things happening around the world. But also that our brains are simply wired to pay more attention to unpleasant news. Psychologists call this the “negativity bias” and have found that it’s one of the first things we develop as children.

And while this bias may have helped our ancestors pay attention to potentially life-threatening situations, today it’s getting in the way of our happiness, well-being, and even our productivity.

So how do we get past the negativity bias and stop bad news from ruining our days?

Just how much news are we consuming every day?

According to a recent Nielsen study, 169 million Americans read the news either through print, online or on their mobile devices.

When we looked at our data from 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found they’d spent over 320,000 days on news sites like The New York Times, The Guardian, and the Washington Post. We also saw that the majority of people check their news first thing in the morning, with most time spent on news sites happening between 8 am and 9 am on weekdays.

Why reading or watching bad news first thing in the morning is so bad for you

There’s a couple of issues at play here. The first of which is the problem with when we consume news.

A study by researchers Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan along with Thrive founder Arianna Huffington found that just 3 minutes of negative news in the morning (versus more uplifting content) can ruin your mood for the rest of the day.

“Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition.”

Next, is the problem with consuming bad news itself. According to data scientist Kalev Leetaru—who used a technique called “sentiment mining” to assess the emotional tone of articles published in the New York Times from 1945 to 2005, as well as an archive of translated articles from 130 other countries—the news has gotten progressively gloomier since the 1970s.

As psychologist Steven Pinker explains in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, this is because the news cycle has become “like play-by-play sports commentary.” To stay competitive, news agencies focus on “discrete events, generally those that took place since the last edition” rather than larger changes.

“Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle.

“The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every 50 years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.

All that time steeped in negativity has its consequences.

Far from being better informed, heavy news consumers end up miscalibrated and irrational due to a cognitive bias called the Availability Heuristic. This bias explains that people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.

It’s why people rank tornadoes (which kill around 50 people a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills closer to 4,000).

To combat the negative news cycle, slow down and pick your battles

Everyone wants to feel informed. Yet too much exposure to the news—especially negative news—can seriously impact our mood and our ability to be rational and logical. So what do we do?

For one, we can start by slowing down our personal news cycle. Smartphones, push notifications, and news apps keep breaking news (which is usually negative) at our fingertips. Or worse, send it directly to us without our consent.

To break this cycle, Hooked author and behavioral designer Nir Eyal suggests we read printed newspapers rather than online news.

This way, he explains, he stays informed but also receives closure by only reading as much as the daily paper provides. He trusts the newspaper’s editors to curate only the top stories each day and doesn’t have to fight the urge to click to the next story in an ever-updating flurry of new news.

“I still consume a ton of news—I just make sure I’m getting it from trusted sources, in a way that serves me.”

But slowing down the news cycle isn’t a complete solution. We still have to deal with misinformation and the reliability of news sources. The threat of “fake news” and news cycles too fast for fact-checking put the onus on the reader to discern what’s reliable and what’s not.

Discerning reliable news from misinformation is a skill, according to freelance journalist Jihii Jolly, that all readers need:

“… choosing what to read, when, and how is a news literacy skill. In the same way that financial literacy requires knowing how money works and the most effective methods for managing it, news literacy requires familiarity with how journalism is made and with the most effective ways to consume it.”

Blindly following the news cycle can also make it hard to change your mind when new information arises.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist who’s been studying efforts to correct inaccurate information once it’s been shared, has found that in general:

“Once factually inaccurate ideas take hold in people’s minds, there are no reliable strategies to dislodge them—especially from the minds of those for whom the misinformation is most ideologically convenient.”

So if it’s so hard to correct misinformation, even when presented with the truth, perhaps Gillmor is right, and we need to be more skeptical from the beginning.

But what if there’s just too much information to sort through?

How to become a conscious news consumer

Choosing which news to engage with can empower as much as it can overwhelm us. 

As author Benjamin P. Hardy writes:

“You have to choose what you consume consciously… The information you allow yourself to process affects you greatly. You can become confused quickly with all of the conflicting voices, opinions, and options in the world today.”

Here are a few suggestions on ways to narrow your focus, find trusted resources, and combat your addiction to bad news:

Pick mailing lists over breaking news

Rather than get caught up in the “breaking” part of news where facts are more uncertain, Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Journalism School suggests trying out the slow news movement.  

Slow news is the idea of a longer news cycle that focuses more on fact-checking and careful reporting than being first to report on a story. Gillmor’s gone so far as to cut down on news-based RSS feeds, stop checking Twitter, and even deleted his browser bookmarks to news sites. As he explains:

“The more current the news is, the more skeptical I am of what I’m seeing.”

Instead, he gets his “slow news” from mailing lists where experts send out links to information they believe is useful and important. The sources are trustworthy, says Gillmor, but this approach also “automatically puts a time gap into the process, which is valuable.”

Be comfortable in not knowing everything

There’s a difference between searching out information because you need it now versus just storing it for later. Think about how you can apply this technique to your information consumption. Rather than read every news story just in case it comes up in conversation, seek out only what you need now. (Or, as Jeff Stibel writes on USA Today, understand that in most cases, important news will find you).

This doesn’t mean that you should forgo readying anything that doesn’t have an immediate purpose. But simply to use this as a filter when you’re feeling the effects of too much news. 

You’re not alone in your struggle against the flood of bad news

Everyone from journalists to well-known authors seems to be grappling with the fine line between being informed and being overwhelmed.

Yet if we want to be happier and more productive we can’t let the negativity bias take over our days. Take a second to reassess your own news consumption habits. And if you need a little help, sign up for RescueTime for free and start building a better media practice.

Originally published at blog.rescuetime.com

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