Pandora’s problem: Why do we keep reading bad news?

Given that people are 49% more likely to read an upsetting piece of news compared to an uplifting one, it might be time we start trying to understand our gravitation towards the darker side of life.

Writer: Alexander Hancock
Editor: Andrey Chau
Artist: Lia Bote

Our relationship with the news has often been compared to Pandora’s Box, the Greek myth that warns of curiosity and its potential to incite danger. While we plead for uplifting stories to bless our news feed, our exposure to morbid content is unrelenting. That our obsession with the news has grown in the past couple of years is evidenced by its ubiquity: on social media, TV, radio, newspapers or even Alexa’s quotidian news coverage. A simple tap of the screen can transport us from the safety of our beds to warzones, crime scenes, and the depths of plastic-ridden oceans. But is our addiction solely rooted in a yearning to be better educated on current affairs, or do we secretly prioritise upsetting news over good news? Can we blame the media for its fixation on tragedies like COVID-19 or are they simply feeding our appetite for them? 

Our fascination with the macabre has often been linked to the notion of negativity bias, which suggests that humans are more likely to be affected by a piece of bad news, opposed to a good piece of news. Stories that focus on natural disasters take precedence over stories about environmental sustainability because we respond to negative stimuli more acutely. Psychologist John Cacioppo tested this theory in 1998, when he showed participants photos ranging from ‘positive’ images (a new car) to ‘negative’ images (a dead animal). Measuring their behavioural responses, he discovered that upsetting images engendered a far bigger cerebral response, compared to uplifting images. A 2014 study corroborated Cacioppo’s theory, measuring higher cognitive activity in the right inferior frontal cortex when volunteers were exposed to negative stimuli. Researchers believe this immediate and intense cognitive response to negative news links to evolutionary adaptive functions, which played a significant role in the survival of our ancestors. Psychologists also discovered that exposure to distressing content stimulated the release of neurotransmitters in the amygdala, which are fundamental in the consolidation of emotional memories. Their research concluded that negative news stories enter our long term-memory more quickly, compared to positive news stories. This may provide an explanation for the philosophical nugget that we learn more from our mistakes than we do our successes. 

A more cynical approach suggests humans secretly revel in the misfortunes of others. Reading about the dredging up of an actor’s problematic tweets or a politician’s failed tax evasion scheme can sometimes provide the boost we need to get through the day. This is what Sigmund Freud discussed in relation to the German term Schadenfreude — the happiness we experience from someone else’s failure. Freud posited that this phenomenon begins in young children. Babies laugh — according to Freud — because they feel a sense of superiority when witnessing their parents’ mishaps. Subsequent studies indicate that our amusement from watching someone fail relates to social comparison theory, which propounds that our sense of self-worth is contingent on how we view ourselves in comparison to other people. This might explain our fascination with vicious celebrity gossip and petty slandering of political rivals. 

Perhaps, accepting that we’re all guilty of having a morbid curiosity is the hardest pill to swallow. From gruesome gladiator duels to public hangings, even to the popularity of shows like You, our proclivities towards the macabre have spanned centuries. Aristotle famously declared: “we enjoy and admire paintings of objects that would annoy or disgust us”. But where does this curiosity come from? In a study published by Psychological Science, researchers suggested our obsession with morbidity is born from an intrinsic compulsion to eliminate uncertainty. Despite our understanding that finding answers in the unknown may disturb us, our desire to know supersedes these fears. 

Yet, an important distinction here lies in the difference between interest and enjoyment. While Freud and Aristotle may have argued that we experience happiness from things that upset us, contemporary researchers — Christopher K. Hsee and Bowen Ruan — purport it is our curiosity that draws us towards the darker aspects of life, not a sense of pleasure. In an experiment with two sets of volunteers, the researchers explained to one group that among a cluster of pens, some would cause an electric shock, but did not specify which ones would produce the jolt. With the second group, they identified the exact pens that would cause a shock and the ones that wouldn’t. The first group clicked more pens compared to the second group. 

Contemporary scholars have argued that our unyielding fixation on COVID-19, including daily updates on global figures and stories about overwhelmed hospital staff, epitomises this burning curiosity. A report issued by Ofcom revealed UK Internet users spent 26% more time on news sites during lockdown.

If Pandora’s Box has been open for centuries, the question isn’t so much to do with whether our curiosity is waning, but rather the precarious balancing act that confronts us: are we teetering between being well-informed and being overwhelmed with negativity? Now more than ever, with the relentless output of worrying information and data concerning COVID-19, our mental wellbeing is perhaps at its most vulnerable.  

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