What is Negative Bias?

I can provide you with a scientific definition of what negative bias is. However, I am not a scientist. I am a mere civilian and therefore prefer simple English.

Negative Bias is the way in which humans tend to give more importance to negative and/or bad experiences over positive and/or good experiences. For example, if I ask anyone, what happened in 2001? Most people without thinking will make some reference to the 9/11 terrorist attack on American soil. However, if we reflect, a lot of positive experiences also occurred such as Baltimore winning the Super Bowl and Lakers wining the NBA Championship. Digging a bit deeper in your personal history, you may also find positive experiences like getting a promotion, meeting your significant other, having a child etc. This in my view is negative bias.

But why are our brains wired like that?

Understanding why we think like we do can assist us in using that to our advantage. This has been hardwired into our system for centuries when our forefathers hunted for a living (times have changed for sure). The bad experiences during those times would have involve getting attacked by a predator or fights amongst diverse groups of people. The impact of a snake bike or a group war could mean death. For this reason, anything bad that can happen will have a significantly more impact on life than anything good happening.

This is true today. Bad experiences tend to significantly impact our lives and as such we give it more importance. We may not even remember that we received a huge bonus or a promotion 10 years ago. However, I can assure you, if you were fired 15 years ago from work, you will recall that.

Negative Bias is the reason we are so glued to the news whenever there is negative news. Reflecting on the last 12 months, what news topic grabbed and held your attention? For me:

  • Australian Bushfires
  • Christchurch mosque shootings
  • Fire at Notre Dame Cathedral
  • President Trump’s impeachment

Fortunately, none of the above events personally impacted me. However, I recall being super glued to all major news channels to obtain any updates I could.

News Media are using Negative Bias to their Advantage

The News Media very intelligently provides us with news that will hold our attention and in its most basic form, our attention is what grows their profits. A news company derives revenue from either advertising or subscription from members. For both these income sources, they need us glued to their respective channels.

They use our weakness of negative bias to their advantage. Please do not take my word for it, by googling top news stories of 2019, you will notice at-least 80% of which will be negative/bad news and are dramatized beyond essential levels. For your reference:

The BBC link above is most interesting to me as it's based on what BBC readers are reading in the past decade. Don’t get me wrong, they are reporting what the news is in varying degree of dramatisation and emphasis.In some countries, dramatising of news is such an art that their livelihood is dependent on this art. Lookup YouTube videos extracted from Republic Channel in India. These videos are amusing at best. However, they can have rather negative impact on its viewers and their mindset.

News channels’ purpose is to report the news in an unbiased and honest manner. Some do it well, some do it poorly and some deliberately do it poorly to ensure their profits are strong at expense of all else. Ask yourself, do you know of any media outlet that is reporting news honestly and without bias. If you do, please let me know on twitter -@MereCivilian

The following are findings from a study by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center conducted in 2017 which gives us an insight into the ratio of negative news to positive news:

Today’s figures will be different, but I suspect they will be worse rather than better.

There are good journalists and good media outlets out there. The problem is, it is the so called Merchants of Bad that are making more noise and as such are more popular.The reason why they are popular is because by constantly focusing on bad/negative news, they have our attention.

Further concern with news media outlets

A well-informed citizenry is essential for a healthy democracy.It is my strong view that “news media” is killing our democratic instinct and consequently contributing to an unhealthy democracy. The presentation is such that we are not given the option to question their views. It is presented in such a manner that those putting out opposing views are forced to reconsider as they may be labeled as “anti-American”, “unpatriotic”, “anti-national”, “anti Trump” etc. Any human ought to have the freedom to express their views without being labeled into some category.

What can we do?

A LOT!!!

We are enabling their behavior, we are encouraging them by giving them our attention and our precious time. Yes, we need (more of an interest, rather than a need) to know what’s going on in the world. We need to briefly be aware of the news and endeavour to pay more attention to positive and/or solution-based news media. This has a positive impact on our mind and gives us the confidence that there are good things happening. And believe me, there is a lot of good things happening.

If viewers pay less attention to sensational news and more to honest journalism, we may encourage this media outlets to report news that we should be aware of rather than the news that will peak our negative bias.

There are already signs of media companies considering their news delivery. Check out: The News and Mental Health: Would You Filter Out Bad News if You Could? By BBC Research & Development.

Anecdote: for the last 2 months, each morning, I have the same conversation with my family. “What are the numbers like today for COVID19?”, “what did Trump do overnight? is he taking this seriously?”, “what is China not telling us?” etc etc.…

What is the benefit of starting your day like this? We need a filter; we cannot just let all this get to us.

We need to ask ourselves, what is the benefit of exposing ourselves and giving our attention to news media? We know why they do what they do? Why are we so interested in giving our valuable time and energy to them?

What am I doing?

  • Limiting my news time to 10 minutes a day from a reputable source. Remember, regardless of your financial position, we all humans are time poor. We all only have 24 hours in a day. Use it wisely.
  • Removing apps from News Media. Without these apps, I find that I’m not wasting my time, avoiding negativity, and spending my time elsewhere. Currently, reading A Gentlemen in Moscow.
  • Changing the topic of discussion in the morning to something lighter and positive. Yesterday we spoke about the pros and cons of working from home based on our own experience. This morning, it was about what will we do after the lockdown is over. I’m keen to catchup with work colleagues. Never thought I would say that.
  • Focusing on news backed by research and facts. For example: Journalists Resource from Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy provides research on news topics that are shaping the world today.
  • Questioning rather than accepting the news. Questioning its factuality and questioning the benefit to me knowing this piece of news.

I, as a mere civilian do not have all the answers. However, I’m willing to try and at times, that's all we can do.

Keen to hear your thoughts, views, and comments - [email protected] or on twitter @MereCivilian