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.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman demonstrates how quick our minds are and how fast they react to potential dangers and threats by showing us two very simple pictures of eyes. The pictures are black squares, with a little bit of white space that our brains immediately perceive as eyes, and beyond that immediate perception of eyes, our brains also immediately perceive an emotional response within the eyes. They are similar to the simple eyes I sketched out here:
In my sketch, the eyes on the left are aggressive and threatening, and our brains will pick up on the threat they pose and we will have physiological responses before we can consciously think through the fact that those eyes are just a few lines drawn on paper. The same thing happens with the eyes on the right, which our brains recognize as anxious or worried. Our body will have a quick fear reaction, and our brain will be on guard in case there is something we need to be anxious or worried about as well.
Regarding a study that was conducted where subjects in a brain scanner were shown a threatening picture for less than 2/100 of a second, Kahneman writes, “Images of the brain showed an intense response of the amygdala to a threatening picture that the viewer did not recognize. The information about the threat probably traveled via a superfast neural channel that feeds directly into a part of the brain that processes emotions, bypassing the visual cortex that supports the conscious experience of seeing.” The study was designed so that the subjects were not consciously aware of having seen an image of threatening eyes, but nevertheless their brain perceived it and their body reacted accordingly.
The takeaway from this kind of research is that our environments matter and that our brains respond to more than what we are consciously aware of. Subtle cues and factors around us can shape the way we behave and feel about where we are and what is happening. We might not know why we feel threatened, and we might not even realize that we feel threatened, but our heart rate may be elevated, we might tense up, and we might become short and defensive in certain situations. When we think back on why we behaved a certain way, why we felt the way we did, and why we had the reactions we did, our brains won’t be able to recognize these subtle cues that never rose to the level of consciousness. We won’t be able to explain the reason why we felt threatened, all we will be able to recall is the physiological response we had to the situation. We are influenced by far more than our conscious brain is aware, and we should remember that our conscious brain doesn’t provide us with a perfect picture of reality, but nevertheless our subconscious reacts to more of the world than we notice.