“I think it’s too late to be pessimistic. There’s no way to think optimistically or not – we need actions.”
~ Yann Arthus-Bertrand
When I read this quote by filmmaker, Yann Arthus-Bertrand it struck me as very relevant in our current times. Negative stories will not be our saviors since they make us more passive, more overwhelmed and more anxious. The power of a story is implied in what Mr. Arthus-Bertrand is saying and how transformative it can be. Telling stories about actions that people do to help someone somewhere on this planet, will inspire much more then telling stories of people that have hurt or kill someone. A story of helping someone holds the power to inspire others to do a similar act, to see the possibility of changing a dismal situation. The story of someone killing someone else, doesn’t make you want to take on today’s challenges. It might even cripple you to think that there is no point to trying because life is so dismal.
But this begs the question: Why are we then emphasizing on negative stories? Why is the killing so much more attractive to share and reshare than the helping?
In my research, I came across a phenomenon that is called negative bias. Negative bias is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. It is also known as positive-negative asymmetry. This negativity bias means that we recall insults better than praise. I remember when I was a teenager and someone would say I wasn’t pretty or my cloths were looking stupid it would stay with me for weeks. When someone on the other hand said I was pretty or my dress matched beautifully with my blond hair, I would forget about it much sooner. Maybe even before the next day.
It explains why bad first impressions can be so difficult to overcome and why past traumas can have such long lingering effects. In almost any interaction, we are more likely to notice negative things and later remember them more vividly.1
This partially explains our preference or even our fascination for negative or sensational stories. This bias toward the negative leads you to pay much more attention to the bad things that happen, making them seem much more important than they really are.
Most shocking I found the fact that approximately 90% of all media news is negative. (Quora) And another one that amazed me is that sensational stories form 95% of media headlines. (The Guardian)2
In my storytelling profession, I have seen this often and it is not only limited to my profession. Stories about people who are ill, dying or in an accident are told and retold more often than stories about our mothers sitting on a couch with a snoring cat on their laps. If I really pay attention to my bodily response when reading a story of a fatal car accident, I feel adrenaline starting to run, I feel my anxiety levels rising and sadness spreading through my veins. The story of my mother sitting on the couch with a cat snoring on her lap brings about a more positive and peaceful response. I feel a smile entering my face and feel-good hormones flooding my body. But this is even more confusing why we seem to prefer a negative response over the positive response? My body doesn’t feel better when full of anxiety so why the attraction to a story that activates this?
Where does our negative bias originate? I wonder. And what purpose does it serve?
I found out that the reason for this could well be evolutionary. For our ancestors to survive, they needed to focus on the negative news that surrounded them. Whether it was an impending storm, a predator approaching, or anything else posing a threat, any negativity could’ve been life-threatening.
Our ancestors had to stay aware of all potential threats for their survival so they could have shared stories on what to do when a bear suddenly appears in front of them. Sharing stories on this matter and listening to them might mean the difference between life and death in the (near) future.
We still carry this hard wiring in our daily lives and today it manifests inside of us in different ways. Our fear of bears has changed into fear of immigrants, a virus, our governments. Even though our response to these threats is not comparable to our flight or fight response when encountering a bear in the woods, a virus or an immigrant, our body responds in the same way.
I was speaking to a friend in Cape town, South Africa, and she mentioned how hard she finds it to cope with what is happening to her life in lockdown due to COVID. The news about the virus and about terrible illness and dying alone, scares the hell out of all of us. Being inside all the time because of a lockdown doesn’t help to relieve this feeling of extreme anxiety. There is no possibility to fight or flight. She is just locked in her house searching for another way to release tension. What if we would tell her a story of possibility alongside the story of loss and fear? What if we would understand that stories stir emotions and it is also in their power to balance these emotions?
The stories we tell have major impact on how we perceive the world. It has major impact on how we perceive other people, possible health threats or institutions and systems. Positive stories on these subjects hold a promise. A promise that something went right, has changed for the better and could save our planet. In that story holds a promise we might learn something. We might be inspired by the good idea that helped the change for the better. Why are we so preoccupied with how many people listen to the story? Why are we not sensitive to their emotional effects? To me this can only be explained by the diminished value we see in the stories we tell.
According to psychological research, our focus on negative stories shapes our view of the world and suggests that the negative bias impacts on our motivation to complete a task. People are less motivated when an incentive is framed as a means to gain something than when the same incentive will help them avoid the loss of something. 3 This might explain why we emphasize the loss of lives in a flood more than how many lives were saved. Our emotional response would suggest different. The sadness we feel about people drowning is much less attractive than the happiness we feel when people are saved. So again, why do we emphasize the negative?
Additionally, studies have shown that negative news is more likely to be perceived as truthful. Since negative information draws greater attention, it can be seen to have greater validity. Shocking isn’t it? A negative story is not only shared more, it is not only valued more, on top of that it even becomes more credible when it holds negative information.
Learning about all these findings brings me to the conclusion that stories are enormously impactful and moreover, that negative stories have huge impact because of our evolution and because we never changed our stories while our world dramatically changed. This leaves me with a profound question in relation to our current times and the stories we tell.
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
– Dr. Wayne Dyer
Is it possible that in our changing world we need to change our storytelling? And is it possible that with the changing of our focus from the negative to the positive, our world view will change and our inspiration to add in a positive way to the planet and all that lives on it, will increase? To me negative bias seems an heritage that is helpful and needed but in our world has been maximized to the extent that it hurts us rather then helps us. So the next time you tell or retell a story that holds a negative narrative, please make sure you prepare a hopeful story to balance our perspective of the world.