Monday, December 12, 2005

Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain

I took the title of this post from one of my favorite journal articles, "Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorization" by Tiffany Ito, John Cacioppo, and colleagues. Since I first read this article, I must admit that I use its title to answer a question at least once a month.

Critics blast journalists for the "If it bleeds, it leads" mentality. My response? "Negative information weighs ..." Well, you know the rest. This morning I was recounting the trials and tribulations of my lab lock (it broke last week) with our amazing executive assistant, and she remarked that I have "a little cloud" above me. Although this may seem true, I assured her that good things largely have defined my time at OSU. Then, of course, I explained how it only seemed negative because negative information weighs ... you see the pattern.

Less than an hour after this conversation, I came across a story on about, which self describes the Web site as "Real News. Compelling Stories. Always Positive." You can imagine what my first thought was.

Upon further consideration, however, I began to think that the site could work. These days fragmentation describes the media. No longer do you have only three networks from which to choose. Hundreds of channels fill (i.e., pollute) your airwaves. Thousands of magazine titles clog bookstore shelves, and millions of Web sites and Weblogs ask for your attention. In this environment a Happy News Web site can not only survive, it can flourish -- at the fringe.

For the major news outlets, this strategy would spell doom. There is a reason that negativity defines the news, and it is not due to widespread sadism among editors. Instead it is the basic wiring of the human brain. This fact -- more than any other -- keeps me away from normative predictions. As a cognitive scientist, I am keenly aware that we can simultaneously complain about the negative news while religiously tuning in.

But hidden among that discontent is an opportunity. "See a need, fill a need" says Bigweld in the movie Robots currently occupying my children so I can post this. There is a need for positive news. There are viewers (my TV bias here) who will seek it out, and there are people who will pay to advertise to these wide-eyed optimists. As an industry-wide strategy, "going positive" stands only to fail. For a niche, however, money awaits.

As a real-world example, let's consider lead headlines when clicking on Health at various news outlets: "Clinic assists childhood cancer survivors." "Lasik at 10: Common but not covered." "Parental involvement deters teens drug use." "What me worry? Getting guys to wise up about their health."

CNN carries an Associated Press piece, and the fifth paragraph is full of warning, uncertainty, and lack of insurance coverage. FoxNews talks about what parents can do, but still rattles off frightening statistics, while MSNBC focuses on room for improvement. In truth, life contains both happiness and sadness. Evolution wired our brains to attend to the latter, and our behavior as a news audience reflects this. For a niche Web site, however, normative ideals may be quite profitable as a backlash to our evolved minds.


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