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Sad But True: We’re More Likely to Believe Bad News

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Do you nod your head knowingly while reading the latest bleak economic figures, but respond skeptically to suggestions that the worst may be over? There's a reason for that: Humans, it turns out, are more inclined to accept negative information as accurate.

That's the conclusion of a newly published study by psychologist Benjamin Hilbig of the University of Mannheim in Germany. Working from the well-established concept of negativity bias — the phenomenon that negative events, or the fear thereof, have a disproportionate impact on our emotions and behavior — he conducted three experiments to determine whether bad news was more likely to be believed.

In each of the tests — two online surveys and one standard questionnaire — the identical piece of information was framed in either negative or positive terms, and participants were asked to judge its truthfulness on a four-point scale. For instance, in one experiment, half were informed that 80 percent of German marriages lasted 10 years or longer, where the other half were told that 20 percent of couples were divorced within a decade.

In each instance, the facts were judged to be more truthful when they were presented in a negative frame (in this case, with the emphasis on divorce). Details are in his paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Hilbig notes that "the psychological mechanisms underlying the reported effects are by no means clear." He points out several possible explanations, noting that negative information "is more likely to demand thorough processing than positive information," since it often negates something we previously believed, or alerts us to something we have to pay attention to. This increased level of thought processing "can increase the persuasiveness of messages," he writes.

This phenomenon, if confirmed by future research, would appear to have a number of negative consequences. If the public is disinclined to believe positive economic news, it may hold off on spending even when the economy needs just that jolt. If the electorate is more inclined to believe negative things about a candidate, attack ads are likely to become even more dominant in future elections. Government leaders inclined to believe the worst about neighboring nations will presumably be more willing to go to war.

It all sounds pretty bleak — and thus awfully believable.