How is it that striking headlines, thumbnails of shocked faces, triggering words and stories of vicious crimes grab out attention? How is it that the most controversial tweets surface to the top of our feeds? Why is the media always biased towards negativity and make us feel that crime is happening everywhere even when it’s not?
Our worldview determines our outlook on life. The way we see the world determines whether we interact with others using compassion or apathy and trust or suspicion. It regulates how much positive emotion we feel and how much hope we have for the future which determines how motivated we are to becoming the best version of ourselves.
Our bias towards negativity stems from the stories of our ancestors who saw negative interactions in terms of social exclusion, fighting predators and hunger as a life or death situation. Psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. We can’t just will ourselves to see everything as good because our minds are wired to find and react to threats, moral violations, and setbacks.
Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures. This principle, called “negativity bias,” shows up all over psychology. In marital interactions, it takes at least five good or constructive actions to make up for the damage done by one critical or destructive act. In financial transactions and gambles, the pleasure of gaining a certain amount of money is smaller than the pain of losing the same amount. In evaluating a person’s character, people estimate that it would take twenty-five acts of life-saving heroism to make up for one act of murder. When preparing a meal, food is easily contaminated (by a single cockroach antenna), but difficult to purify. Over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. We can’t just will ourselves to see everything as good because our minds are wired to find and react to threats, violations, and setbacks. As Ben Franklin said: “We are not so sensible of the greatest Health as of the least Sickness”
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. [online] Basic Books, p29. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/96884.The_Happiness_Hypothesis [Accessed 29 Dec. 2022].
We are by nature prone to novelty seeking due to the dopaminergic molecule of more firing whenever we encounter something new, exciting or shocking. Fear is also another important component as stories of violence could pose a threat to ourselves so we need to assess the level of danger so that we can continue to propagate our genes. A distorted worldview comprising of fear at every turn hinders our ability to become the best version of ourselves. We fall for stories as the narrative fallacy constructs memes into stories that spread throughout culture to help us make sense of our existence.
The mass media — being a dying industry has bills to pay so they exploit our bias towards negativity using the only way they know how — by taking advantage of our brain’s natural ability to categorize information and our implicit self serving bias towards polarizing us and them. This in turn distorts our hope and perspective on life, shifting us out of allostasis and towards chronic stress and apathy through learned helplessness.
We use different brain circuits when contemplating our own moral failings (heavy activation of the vmPFC) versus those of others (more of the insula and dlPFC). And we consistently make different judgments, being more likely to exempt ourselves than others from moral condemnation. Why? Part of it is simply self-serving; sometimes a hypocrite bleeds because you’ve scratched a hypocrite. The difference may also reflect different emotions being involved when we analyze our own actions versus those of others. Considering the moral failings of the latter may evoke anger and indignation, while their moral triumphs prompt emulation and inspiration. In contrast, considering our own moral failings calls forth shame and guilt, while our triumphs elicit pride.
Sapolsky, R. (2019). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. [online] Vintage Digital, p.453. Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Behave-Biology-Humans-Best-Worst/dp/1594205078 [Accessed 21 Nov. 2021].
A mental shortcut, known as the availability bias relies on immediate examples that come to our mind when we are evaluating a specific topic. Stories of police brutality, terrorist attacks, rape and murder are designed to exploit this bias and generate negative stereotypes making us feel as if these stories are a common place when they are in fact rare. The probability of being a victim of crime in a developed world is very low. The media, including social media algorithms were invented by a minority of elites to amplify novel stories exploiting our survivorship bias. We then use our confirmation bias to seek out stories that we agree with thus tilting us even further towards polarization.
The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. As they put it, “skilled arguers … are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful, and so ineradicable. How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favored view? Yet, in fact, it’s very hard, and nobody has yet found a way to do it. It’s hard because the confirmation bias is a built-in feature (of an argumentative mind), not a bug that can be removed (from a platonic mind).
Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. [online] Pantheon, p96. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11324722-the-righteous-mind [Accessed 21 Oct. 2022].
If we can become aware of how the media designs stories to exploit our many human vulnerabilities and learn to create more than we consume, we can regulate a state of allostasis bringing us closer to realizing our legend.