I hear a lot of criticism of news and the tendency of news organizations to operate under a model of “if it bleeds, it leads.” The idea is that news is too negative, that it focuses too much on violent crime, corruption, and scandal rather than important but often somewhat boring news and developments. The negativity bias within the news is cited for our misunderstandings of violent crime, for tainting our views of politics, and for making us more cynical. But research that Daniel Kahneman presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that maybe we shouldn’t blame news organizations for prioritizing bad news.
Kahneman writes, “the brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news.” There appears to be physiological structures in the brain that allow our brains to react at super speeds to threats and injuries. If you hear a lion roar, your body is going to react to the threat immediately, before you consciously recognize exactly what you just heard. Similarly, if you touch a hot stove your body is going to react by jerking your hand back before you even feel the pain from the burn.
There is an evolutionary psychology explanation to the immediate reaction of our brain to threats and injuries. If you are deep at work and concentrating intensely on something, you don’t want your brain to be slow to shift gears and respond to the sound of an approaching predator. You want your brain and body to begin reacting to a dangerous sound immediately, to help you survive a potentially fatal attack. Animals, and early human ancestors, that could respond at a subconscious level to threats and injuries were more likely to survive and and reproduce, passing their super quick response system to the next generation.
Today we don’t have to run from lions as often as our ancestors, and despite what we might sense from action movies and the news, violent crime is actually rather low compared to historic levels. Our super quick threat detection system is still with us, but many of the evolutionary pressures that built it have been left in the past. Our threat and injury detectors are still operating, and Kahneman’s quote suggests that we see their influence in our lives reflected in the news we prioritize. Bad news may activate the same threat responses in our brain, and we may have an instinctual drive to know about understand threats and dangers. “If it bleeds, it leads” is not a grim decision made by news executives, it is a driving force of our evolutionary past, a part of our brain which once served us well, but now prioritizes bad news and biases our media.