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Why We Love Bad News: Understanding Negativity Bias

90% of the news in the newspaper and on television is negative because that’s what we pay attention to.

Every second of every day our brain is bombarded by way too much data than we can possibly process and because nothing is more important to our survival to the species than survival all our visual data, auditory data is funneled to a sliver of the temporal lobe called the amygdala. 


The amygdala is our danger detector.  It’s our early warning system.  It literally combs through all of the sensory input looking for any kind of a danger on putting in on high alert and it evolved during an era of human evolution that was of the immediate type, the tiger in the bush.  You would hear a rustle in the leaves and you would think tiger, not wind and the point—one percent of the time that it was a tiger it saved your life, but today the amygdala literally calls our attention to all the negative stories and if you see a thousand stories you’re going to focus on the negative ones and the media takes advantage of this and you know the old saw if it bleeds it leads.  Well that’s why 90% of the news in the newspaper and on television is negative because that’s what we pay attention to.

And as it turns out we also have a number of what are called cognitive biases.  The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman first addressed these and these cognitive biases keep us negative.  We have a negativity bias, which is the tendency to give far more information to negative details than positive ones and the confirmation bias, which is our tendency to selectively look at information or see information that confirms our preexisting notions, which is fine except that our preexisting notions are typically negative and therefore, we’re reconfirming our negative expectations. 

So ultimately we are kept in this negative state of mind and when the amygdala goes on high alert because much of the dangers around us today are probabilistic dangers, a pandemic might strike, an asteroid might hit, we end up in a situation that our amygdala is always on high alert and it’s screening out the positive news and allowing in the negative news. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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CRISPR-edited babies born in China may have enhanced brain functions

The brains of two genetically edited babies born last year in China might have enhanced memory and cognition, but that doesn't mean the scientific community is pleased.

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Surprising Science
  • In November, Chinese scientist He Jiankui reported that he'd used the CRISPR tool to edit the embryos of two girls.
  • He deleted a gene called CCR5, which allows humans to contract HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.
  • In addition to blocking AIDS, deleting this gene might also have positive effects on memory and cognition. Still, virtually all scientists say we're not ready to use gene-editing technology on babies.
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Dinosaur bone? Meteorite? These men's wedding bands are a real break from boredom.

Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.

Sex & Relationships
  • Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
  • Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
  • The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Surprising Science

Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

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