Negative words in headlines make more people read the online news, according to a new study. Earlier research shows that with more negative news, like the war in Ukraine and inflation, an increasing number of people avoid reading the news because it affects their mood negatively. The new study shows negative words have the strongest effect on news about Government and Economy making more people wanting to read about it.
Negative words in news headlines increased consumption rates (and positive words decreased consumption rates). For a headline of average length, each additional negative word increased the click-through rate by 2.3%, according to a new study called “Negativity drives online news consumption” published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report recently showed that worrying news reports about the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to an increasing number of people avoiding the news.
“The Ukraine crisis, and before it the COVID-19 pandemic, have reminded people of the value of accurate and fair reporting that gets as close to the truth as possible, but we also find evidence that the overwhelming and depressing nature of the news, feelings of powerlessness, and toxic online debates are turning many people away – temporarily or permanently”, the Digital News Report said.
The new study is based on content from website upworthy.com, founded 2012, saying it focuses on positive news and by the researchers described as a pioneer in click-bait.
The researchers write that as most users spend very limited time on all of top news sites put together, online media is forced to compete for the extremely limited resource of reader attention.
“The tendency for individuals to attend to negative news reflects something foundational about human cognition—that humans preferentially attend to negative stimuli across many domains.”
“Attentional biases towards negative stimuli begin in infancy and persist into adulthood as a fast and automatic response. Furthermore, negative information may be more ‘sticky’ in our brains; people weigh negative information more heavily than positive information, when learning about themselves, learning about others and making decisions.”
“This may be due to negative information automatically activating threat responses—knowing about possible negative outcomes allows for planning and avoidance of potentially harmful or painful experiences.”
The researchers write they find supporting evidence for a negativity bias hypothesis: news headlines containing negative language are significantly more likely to be clicked on, even after adjusting for the corresponding content of the news story.
For a headline of average length (~15 words), the presence of a single negative word increased the CTR (clicking on the headline to read the full text) by 2.3%.
“In contrast, we find that news headlines containing positive language are significantly less likely to be clicked on. For a headline of average length, the presence of positive words in a news headline significantly decreases the likelihood of a headline being clicked on, by around 1.0%.”
“Our analyses revealed that the positive effect of negative words on consumption rates was strongest for news stories pertaining to ‘Government & Economy’. These results suggest that consistent with previous work, individuals are especially likely to consume political and economic news when it is negative. Hence, people may be (perhaps unintentionally) selectively exposing themselves to divisive political news, which ultimately may contribute to political polarization and intergroup conflict.”
The report says that basic emotions such as ‘sadness’ increased the likelihood that a news headline was clicked on, while ‘joy’ decreased the likelihood that a news headline was clicked on.
“Understanding the biases that influence people’s consumption of online content is critical, especially as misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories proliferate online. Even publishers marketed as ‘good news websites’ are benefiting from negativity, demonstrating the need for a nuanced understanding of news consumption. Knowing what features of news make articles interesting to people is a necessary first step for this purpose and will enable us to increase online literacy and to develop transparent online news practices.”
The report is written by Claire E. Robertson, New York University, Nicolas Pröllochs, University of Giessen, Germany, Kaoru Schwarzenegger, ETH University, Zurich, Philip Pärnamets, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Jay J. Van Bavel, New York University and Stefan Feuerriegel, ETH University, Zurich.