Is Your Brain Wired To Pay Attention To Bad News?

(Fast Company) How to stop your brain’s addiction to bad news

Your brain is wired to pay attention to bad news. Here’s how to hack that.

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.


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

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

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.

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).


Everyone wants to feel informed. Yet too much exposure to the news–especially negative news–can seriously impact our mood and 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.

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 puts 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.

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