Why must it "bleed" to "lead" the news? Our amygdala, and our memory for trauma, may explain. And show us how to route around it.

At A/UK , we are gripped by major scenarios. Both the limits of our planetary boundaries being broached by climate disruption, and the plenitude potentially on offer by new technology and bioscience. How to reap the benefits of both, at the most empowered and local level, is at the core of what we’re arguing for here.

But we are also super-aware (especially as we develop and frame this blog) that one can get lost in either great theme. We can be either blissed out by radical innovation, or freaked out by disaster scenarios. The former trap demands its own vigilance (see our “futures” strand for that).

But the latter trap also needs to be stepped around. This is the news media’s great challenge in this current moment. What is the responsibility towards the positive actions of their readers, as citizens, when faces with implacable trends like climate distruption? Is it good enough to stun them into silence, or is a different approach to “facts” and “news” needed?

Perhaps we all have to recognise, and respond to, the crooked timber of humanity in all this. The HumanProgress blog isn’t in our usual diet, but we were very struck by this piece exploring why we naturally turn towards the gloomiest news scenarios (the journalists in A/UK’s network will recognise the phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads”). Turns out there quite a bit of brain science involved. See this excerpt:

Why are we as a species so willing to believe in doomsday scenarios that virtually never materialise?

The Chairman of the X Prize Foundation, Peter H. Diamandis, offers one plausible explanation. Human beings are constantly bombarded with information. Because our brains have a limited computing power, they have to separate what is important, such as a lion running toward us, from what is mundane, such as a bed of flowers.

Because survival is more important than all other considerations, most information enters our brains through the amygdala – a part of the brain that is “responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate and fear.” Information relating to those primal emotions gets our attention first because the amygdala “is always looking for something to fear.” Our species, in other words, has evolved to prioritise bad news.

The Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker has noted that the nature of cognition and nature of news interact in ways that make us think that the world is worse than it really is. News, after all, is about things that happen. Things that did not happen go unreported.

As Pinker points out, we “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’” Newspapers and other media, in other words, tend to focus on the negative. As the old journalistic adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” 

To make matters worse, the arrival of social media makes bad news immediate and more intimate. Until relatively recently, most people knew very little about the countless wars, plagues, famines and natural catastrophes happening in distant parts of the world. Contrast that with the 2011 Japanese tsunami disaster, which people throughout the world watched unfold in real time on their smart phones.

The human brain also tends to overestimate danger due to what psychologists call “the availability heuristic” or a process of estimating the probability of an event based on the ease with which relevant instances come to mind. Unfortunately, human memory recalls events for reasons other than their rate of recurrence. When an event turns up because it is traumatic, the human brain will overestimate how likely it is to reoccur.

Consider our fear of terror. According to John Mueller, a political scientist from the Ohio State University, “In the years since 9/11, Islamist terrorists have managed to kill about seven people a year within the United States. All those deaths are tragic of course, but some comparisons are warranted: lightning kills about 46 people a year, accident-causing deer another 150, and drownings in bathtubs around 300.” Yet, Americans continue to fear terror much more than drowning in a bathtub.

Moreover, as Pinker also points out, the psychological effects of bad things tend to outweigh those of the good ones. Ask yourself, how much happier can you imagine yourself feeling? And again, how much more miserable can you imagine yourself to feel? The answer to the latter question is: infinitely.

Psychological literature shows that people fear losses more than they look forward to gains; dwell on setbacks more than relishing successes; resent criticism more than being encouraged by praise. Bad, in other words, is stronger than good.

Finally, good and bad things tend to happen on different timelines. Bad things, such as plane crashes, can happen quickly. Good things, such as the strides humanity has made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, tend to happen incrementally and over a long period of time.

As Kevin Kelly from Wired has put it, “Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of Science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades in to what we might call civilisation … [Progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect.”

More here. Out of interest, we turned to the Nieman Lab (a thinktank for American journalism) and scoured their compendious “Predictions for 2019” page - to see if any news practitioners were grappling in anyway with these cognitive biases in their readers’ appetite for news.

Only a few. Efrat Nechushtai suggests that news media, in order to regain trust, “should appeal as your friend, rather than your teacher” - which at least adjusts the emotional relationship.