Doomscrolling and Negativity Bias

What is Doomscrolling?

I recently came across an article on entitled “Your Doomscrolling Breeds Anxiety. Here’s How To Stop The Cycle.” It refers to the habit that many of us have on social media where we flit on our phones from one depressing news story to another, almost compulsively. It makes the point that the COVID Pandemic has produced a virtually endless supply of bad news stories, and that lockdown has given many of us even more time to doomscroll. When done before bedtime, it is probably a significant contributor to the recent increase in insomnia.

The article refers to daily tweets from a reporter called Karen Ho informing people about doomscrolling, and reminding them to stop doing it! Apparently, Ho first saw the term in a Twitter post from October 2018, but she concedes that it may well have earlier origins. The piece concludes with comments from a clinical psychologist about the dangers of doomscrolling, and some advice about how to “temper the doom”. This consists of: (1) set a timer to limit the amount of scrolling you are able to do in a given period; (2) stay cognisant, by going into your phone with a clear plan of why you are doing it, and periodically checking with yourself if you have found what you were looking for; (3) swap vicious cycles for virtuous cycles (basically, do more positive activities).

Why do we Doomscroll?

What the article doesn’t really address at all is why so many of us have the tendency to doomscroll. It seems to me that it is the one of the clearest modern expressions of negativity bias. I first came across the concept of negativity bias in a Freakonomics Radio podcast entitled “Reasons To Be Cheerful”. This episode featured an American journalist called John Tierney who noticed that negative, depressing or violent news articles were always the ones that got most interest. Apparently, it is a truism in journalism that “If it bleeds, it leads.”

What is Negativity Bias?

Negativity bias can be defined as “the universal tendency of bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than comparable good ones.” Tierney became more interested in the subject after he read a very extensive review on the subject entitled “Bad Is Stronger Than Good” published by social psychologist Roy Baumeister and others in 2001. This is not an easy read, but it is probably worth quoting its summary: “The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. Various explanations such as diagnosticity and salience help explain some findings, but the greater power of bad events is still found when such variables are controlled. Hardly any exceptions (indicating greater power of good) can be found. Taken together, these findings suggest that bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena.”

How does Negativity Bias come about?

Baumeister also features in the podcast, and he and Tierney have written a book on the subject called “The Power of Bad”. The reason why bad things causing stronger effects is so hard-wired in the human brain is a matter of speculation. Baumeister thinks it is an evolutionary phenomenon. Negativity bias would have made primitive man more likely to avoid predators or poisonous plants. It also might have meant that he missed opportunities but, as Baumeister comments, “Life has to win every day, death only has to win once.”

Negativity Bias in the Modern World

However it evolved, there is no doubt that in the modern World negativity bias has started to have negative effects. Baumeister estimates that it takes about 4 good experiences to overcome the effect of 1 bad experience. Producers of news media know that bad news, often sensationalised, gets attention. The availability of 24 hour news and social media tend to amplify the phenomenon, especially when the bad news is fed to the phone in everybody’s pocket. This creates an atmosphere of exaggerated anxiety in our daily lives.

Approaches to Combatting Negativity Bias

The later part of the podcast deals with approaches to minimising the effect of negativity bias. Baumeister suggests what he describes as a “low bad diet”: following people on Facebook that post positive material (not me, then!); avoiding news generally; reading what he describes as “uplifting material”, and sharing it with others.

There is an interesting section where a BBC researcher describes her work on a experimental browser plugin that can modify the BBC News home page. Apparently, there is good evidence that around a third of people actively avoid the news, either because it adversely affects their mood or because it induces a feeling of hopelessness. The plugin would allow people visiting the BBC News home page to enter keywords that they basically don’t want to hear news about. Articles that contain these words would then be blurred out on the page, although the reader would still have the option of “unblurring” a particular story. The plugin might also include a “mood slider” allowing the software again to blur out certain articles depending on your mood that day.

The final part of the podcast deals with “constructive journalism”: basically sources that focus on good news. They use the example of David Byrne’s Reasons to be Cheerful online magazine. It is described as “a non-profit editorial project that is tonic for tumultuous times”. According to the site:

“We tell stories that reveal that there are, in fact, a surprising number of reasons to feel cheerful. Many of these reasons come in the form of smart, proven, replicable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. We’re here to tell you about some of them. Through sharp reporting, our stories balance a sense of healthy optimism with journalistic rigor, and find cause for hope. We are part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.”

Bearing in mind Baumeister’s estimate that we need 4 pieces of good news to overcome 1 piece of bad news, we are going to need a awful lot more sites like this!


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