Why Negative News Sticks in Our Minds
The structure of information may affect what we remember.
- November 17, 2022
- CBR - Behavioral Science
Since ancient times, people have been learning to steer clear of dangerous situations, and our knowledge of potential risks has grown as we’ve evolved. According to standard psychological theories, this is how we have come to pay close attention to negative information—closer attention, in fact, than we do to positive information. A long-ago ancestor died from eating a poisonous plant, that painful event was seared into the memory of friends and relatives, and several millennia later we still know to avoid ingesting toxic plants and chemicals.
But Ruhr University Bochum’s Hans Alves, Chicago Booth’s Alex Koch, and University of Cologne’s Christian Unkelbach suggest that people may also pay close attention to negative information because it’s often distinctive and unusual. Positive information can be similar to the point of becoming standard: if most of your trips to the dentist are uneventful, you won’t dwell on them. By contrast, one piece of negative information can be wildly different from another piece of negative information “so you pay more attention because the novelty value is higher,” says Koch. There are more distinctive ways for something or someone to be bad than there are for them to be good, the researchers conclude.
Koch invites people to think about this in terms of attractiveness. “Models tend to be very symmetrical,” he says. “Their skin is smooth and fine. Their eyes are not too close together or too far apart. Their noses are not too big or too small. There is little margin for error.” Meanwhile, people who aren’t models look different from each other in myriad ways. One person might have rough skin, another a crooked nose, a third bad teeth, and so on. Some people have a combination of features considered unattractive. There are far more ways to be unusual looking than to be conventionally beautiful.
This phenomenon extends to climate. Most people generally are comfortable in a relatively mild range of temperatures, somewhere between 65°F and 85°F (around 18–30°C). Beyond that are two kinds of negative temperatures: too hot or too cold. But a room that’s too warm could be a little too hot, painfully hot, or deathly hot, and the same is true for a room that’s too chilly. “We argue that this is the case for many dimensions, where extremeness provides two different bands of negativity but one small range of positivity,” says Koch.
Many situations have far more potentially negative outcomes than positive ones. Consider, for example, evaluating the comfort of a room.
To explore the consequences of this greater distinctiveness of negativity, the researchers revisited conclusions of previous studies that compared how people respond to negative versus positive information. For example, a 1983 paper by Northwestern’s Andrew Ortony and his coresearchers presented a quandary to psychologists: the researchers observed that when given two sentences that were identical except for their verbs (for example, “The talented musician staged the free concert.” and “The talented musician canceled the free concert.”), neither of which had been encountered in a set of sentences they had previously read, participants were better able to detect that they had not previously read the sentence with the negative verb (“canceled”).
Alves, Koch, and Unkelbach imagined how the distinctiveness of negative information and the similarity of positive information might explain the results. They ran an experiment, theorizing that participants would have more trouble remembering positive words due to the higher similarity of positive information, and indeed their results bear this out.
Multiple studies find that negative information attracts more attention than positive information, the researchers note, pointing out that many other studies find that novel or unexpected information also attracts attention. Could these two conclusions be related? “Because there is such a great diversity of potentially harmful stimuli, negative information needs more computational space to be encoded,” the researchers write. Negative information may grab attention at least in part because we tend to remember things that are different, they argue. They also revisited and re-explained research conclusions about negative information’s greater tendency to affect perceptions of people, impression formation, and attributional thinking (e.g., people look more for the cause of a negative compared with a positive outcome).
The researchers suggest that their theory could solve old puzzles—such as that raised by Ortony and his colleagues. The higher similarity of positive information could also explain why people more quickly infer one positive trait (say honesty) from another (productivity) but have a harder time inferring negative traits (dishonesty and laziness, say) from each other.
In another experiment that the researchers revisited, FOM University of Economics and Management’s Michael Gräf and Unkelbach gave participants a sentence to indicate a certain trait. For example, for honesty, the researchers described a hypothetical person who “does not speak ill of other people behind their back.” After reading this description, participants were asked the likelihood that the person being described had a different trait, such as kindness. The participants inferred positive traits from other positive traits significantly more often, but did not infer negative traits from other negative traits, the researchers find.
Koch says the theory about negative information being diverse lends itself to basic research that applies to many of our current understandings involving how the brain processes negative information. “What are the differences between good, bad, positive, and negative?” he asks. “That’s fundamental.”
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