Bad News Is Good News

by Translation Guy on January 28, 2011

The world is going to hell in a hand basket.

Like that’s news, right? Unless you’ve got your news filter on your browser set for cute kitten videos only, you already know that, since the news you get is always bad.

And if recent research is accurate, the reason that all we get is bad news is because bad news is all we get, or rather, we grasp bad news faster than good news, and it’s more likely to stick with us. Kitten.

And it’s not just all that’s fit to print. We accentuate the negative in all of our communications. David Carmel, Maha Nasrallah and Nilli Lavie consider our selective memory of the negative to be a positive for natural selection. Flower.

“Rapid and accurate detection of information of negative emotional valence has a clear adaptive value from both biological and psychological perspectives (e.g. for engaging in avoidance behavior to prevent potential harm or unpleasant social exchanges).” Well, I suppose that’s another way of saying a buzz kill can kill you if you don’t pay attention right now. Saber-tooth! See? Now I’ve got your attention.

In the experiment, volunteers were exposed to a word so quickly that they couldn’t even read it.  They were then asked whether the word was neutral or had either positive or negative emotional content. Negative words were the winners by far, even though the test was not for word detection. At 30 or so milliseconds, respondents only had to detect the feeling or “emotional valance” they got from the word.

The researchers speculate “that the brain might process negative stimuli faster than positive ones,” or that “processing is equally fast for both types of information but that negative words better capture our attention, causing the processing to start earlier.” Handbasket.

These theories are supported by other cognitive research that shows that attention speeds perception and emotion drives attention. This is a thought I will try to keep in mind next time I consider rolling down the car window and extending an NYC-style greeting to that asshole who just cut me off. But that kind of self-control is not the kind of negativity that’s going to get my attention, or what’s left of it, anyway. Hell.

So, bad news junkie that I am, I’ll surf my way back to the Drudge Report and get all outraged and distracted. Ever since the Web came along, smelling the flowers just doesn’t do it for me anymore, and that’s perfectly natural. Pistol Sales Surge After AZ Shooting.


  1. Wilber says:

    Outstanding, dude. A snack for thought indeed. Love the kittens in the handbasket too; optimists will note that it is more than half full.

    Sometime, if you wish, I’ll share my little quatrain in honor of M. Drudge.

    Wondering about that “buzz kill will kill you…,” where the casual fan would anticipate “buzz saw…” and think it’s a lapsus linguae but the devotee of wordplay will try to discern — well, probably not. No one believes in Freud anymore (relevance?).

    The only time I hear “buzz kill” is on a daily morning laugh-and-smartass-banter radio show, when one of the Morning Morons messes up another one’s good line, etc. (relevance?).

    So – never mind. No knitpicker I!

    BTW, in your earlier report and commentary about the Chinese President’s visit, where does that Hu Juta come from? Is Juta a lapsus calami or, perhaps, a deliberate sly nickname you’ve concocted, with an explicit meaning that Sinologists can appreciate? My WW2 Dictionary of Spoken Chinese offers no clue. Prurient linguists want to know!

  2. Louis Harvey says:

    If you put in the news “healthy baby born in Baltimore” a few people will care but thats it. if you put “regnant woman is killed and has baby ripped from her whom in L.A.” most of the news watching audience is not only going to follow that story but the storys that follow it. “hunt for stolen child is on!” “new suspects in brutal murder” “Child found dead or alive soon to be known” “child found alive but critical” “child in intensive care” “child expected to make a full recovery after horrific events” 1 good story following a sequence of bad ones keeps the ratings up…

  3. Erin Finch says:

    There are a myriad of reasons for the negative press but the main one is “the bottom line”.
    If when they tally up the money the bottom line is red then that is bad, but if the bottom line is black then that is good. Bad news sells far more than good news so the bottom line comes out black!

    It’s all about the money; it always has been about the money, and until the return of the Christ it always will be about the money. Everything else is secondary but worthwhile to discuss as to the reason for negative news stories but the bottom line is the truth.

  4. Judy Schultz says:

    People are sick.

  5. Judith Dolan says:

    This holds water. Believe me, millions of dollars of research goes into telling media outlets and advertisers what WE want and that’s what they give us. P.S. I work for the NY Times.

  6. People like the felicitous more than the negative, imho.

  7. Journalists often prioritize negative news and local stories, nothing new here.

  8. Ofcourse, we all love gossip and It’s all about gossip, not feelgoods.This has been going on since the printing press was invented. In the 1700’s the newspaper bosses would tell one of their employees to go to the local tavern and buy an ale and listen out for stories to publish. They would say” Go sip down at Baker St.” for example. That’s how eventually the practice of spreading juicy stories came to be called “gossip”

  9. benkingery says:

    True, the world is going to hell in a hand basket… love it!!

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