Negativity Bias on Television
A growing group of media researchers are guided by a notion that human emotion is guided by two underlying motivational systems, one appetitive (e.g., approach) and one aversive (e.g., avoid).
To grossly oversimplify the underlying theory, we believe that at low levels of intensity, the appetitive system wins out, and you explore. However, as things become intense, the aversive system wins, and you cut and run.
This system allows you to explore during peaceful times and stay alive during chaotic times.
Much of the related theories were developed by studying how people respond to affective photographs (specifically the International Affective Picture System). When people have been asked to rate many pictures, you can plot the average arousal ratings and the average valence ratings for each picture.
When you do this, as unpleasant pictures become arousing, they become more unpleasant relatively quickly. Pleasant pictures, however, are slower to become extremely positive as they become more arousing. If you draw a trend line for both pleasant and unpleasant pictures, the slope of the line is "steeper" for unpleasant pictures. This is called the negativity bias.
Recently I became curious how such a scatterplot would look for television clips, so I gathered descriptive statistics for 68 clips I have used in various experiments (my friend James also sent some descriptive statistics that I did not have time to work in here).
As you will see here, we see the exact same effect with short 30-second television clips. As unpleasant clips become more arousing, they become much more unpleasant. However, as pleasant clips become more arousing, they are not much more pleasant.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is because we kept it "clean." For the photographs, the really pleasant pictures show naked couples in erotic poses. Since we're not studying pornography, the only sex scenes among these clips were subtle.