Happy Talk



A recent study proved an old notion – the Pollyanna Hypothesis – that there is a “universal human tendency to ‘look on and talk about the bright side of life'” according to a team of scientists at the University of Vermont. The story was reported on Science Daily recently. Reading through newspapers, magazines, websites, music lyrics and movie titles in ten languages, the researchers concluded that “probably all human language skews toward the use of happy words.”

That struck me as counter-intuitive. Maybe it’s just my own experience with local media and bloggers, but I would have thought they’d find more negativity, especially in media and social media. I sure have.

Maybe it’s just a regionalized thing, and what happens here doesn’t reflect trends happening in the rest of the country and the world. Maybe everywhere else, media are more positive, more objective and happier (insert snort of derision here – a quick scan of headline pages from traditional/national media and media accumulators like Drudge also shows a lot of negativity…).

The result above echoes a similar study from 2010 that found,

Words charged with a positive emotional content are used more frequently, thus enhancing human communication… This result supports the theory that social relations are enhanced by a positive bias in human communication.

Shortly after that report was released, another 2012 study found people were generally less happy – at least those using Twitter. Maybe it’s social media, maybe it’s the technology that makes users grumpy:

Research shows that English is strongly biased toward being positive. This new study complements another study showing that average global happiness, based on Twitter data, has been dropping for the past two years. Combined, the two studies show that short-term average happiness has dropped — against the backdrop of the long-term fundamental positivity of the English language.

The story goes on to add that,

In contrast to traditional economic theory, which suggests people are inherently and rationally selfish, a wave of new social science and neuroscience data shows something quite different: that we are a pro-social storytelling species. As language emerged and evolved over the last million years, positive words, it seems, have been more widely and deeply engrained into our communications than negative ones.

So why, then, do negative – and egregiously fake – stories – for example, about vaccines causing autism or gluten being bad for you, or that all GMOs are dangerous – get such widespread readership and are shared online so much? It can’t simply be because people are too lazy or stupid to do the research to uncover the facts. It can’t be that everyone is so mind-numbingly gullible as to believe chemtrails are Bigfoot are real or that trickle-down economics work.

Sharing negativity – no matter how illogical or outrageous – must feed some more basic need in our psyches.

Like memes, emotions are contagious, and moreso online. A positive or negative piece can spawn a tidal wave of reaction; comments and sharing. A 2014 study on social media found,

Emotions can spread contagiously among users of online social networks, both positive and negative, researchers report. The experiment is the first to suggest that emotions expressed via online social networks influence the moods of others, they say.

This morning, as I read stories and headlines on online media, I tried to keep in mind these findings. There is a lot of bad happening in the world that it is hard to be positive about: Russians invading Ukraine, ISIS murdering civilians and selling women into sexual slavery, anti-vaccine idiots causing measles and whooping cough to return, the economy tanking, ebola killing thousands, Stephen Harper doing pretty much anything, oceans dying, Republicans, a Quebec referendum, Don Cherry…

Yes, Don Cherry. The outspoken sportscaster made a joking comment to a colleague on Twitter about eating a seal-meat burger that, as the CBC reported,

…ignited a social media firestorm in the 24 hours following the broadcast.

If only people paid as much attention to or got as worked up about poverty, homelessness, education, native issues or health care as they do about a celebrity’s comments. If only people read more real science, health and nutrition and ignored dangerous, pseudoscience advice from dimwits like Gwyneth Paltrow. if only people checked for facts, logic and even common sense before they share yet another post from some self-styled “psychic” con artist… if only, if only.

Maybe the reason for so much negativity in the media is not only because of the reporters: it’s also because we are, as a culture, shallow and callous. We are more easily distracted by the baubles of such celebrity trivia than by the injustices and inequalities around us. We collectively find it more entertaining – and less taxing on the intellect – to swallow puffery about nipple slips, detoxing, celebrity diets, astrology and communicating with angels than trying to wrestle with the grim realities of our lives.

Besides, negative stories also feed our deeply-held belief in conspiracies. We collectively believe deep down that governments are out to get us, that all politicians lie, that aliens are among us, that there are secrets we’re not being told, that big corporations are poisoning us and spraying our atmosphere with mind-altering drugs.

A 2014 study, reported on Outbrain, found that many consumers actually prefer negative content:

…headlines with positive superlatives performed 29% worse and headlines with negative superlatives performed 30% better. The average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63% higher than that of their positive counterparts… Audience aversion to positive superlatives may simply be a product of overuse, or it could be because readers are skeptical of sources’ motives for endorsement. On the flip side, sources of negative information may be more likely to be perceived as impartial and authentic. Whereas positive superlatives may have become clichéd through overuse, negative superlatives may be more unexpected and intriguing.

That’s an intriguing comment about the use of language in the media that I will have to explore at a later date: have we become immune to positive superlatives so much that negative ones suggest greater credibility? Do the social media negativists garner such attention because we are tired of positive words?

In July, 2014, the BBC published a piece called,”Why bad news dominates the headlines.” In it, author Tom Stafford wrote:

Perhaps journalists are drawn to reporting bad news because sudden disaster is more compelling than slow improvements. Or it could be that newsgatherers believe that cynical reports of corrupt politicians or unfortunate events make for simpler stories. But another strong possibility is that we, the readers or viewers, have trained journalists to focus on these things. Many people often say that they would prefer good news: but is that actually true?

Stafford ends with a conclusion that I am not confident explains the popular attention to negativity very well:

There’s another interpretation… we pay attention to bad news, because on the whole, we think the world is rosier than it actually is. When it comes to our own lives, most of us believe we’re better than average, and that, like the clichés, we expect things to be all right in the end. This pleasant view of the world makes bad news all the more surprising and salient. It is only against a light background that the dark spots are highlighted.

I also think that creeping cynicism overtakes many reporters and newscasters; it makes them less and less able to see the positive side of things, less and less able to be objective as their career ages but doesn’t advance. Doing the same job grind day in and day out for years with no prospect of advancement will disillusion anyone, not just reporters. It’s hard to be positive when you feel your job sucks and you have nothing to look forward to but another decade or two doing it.


PS. In the ongoing debate about a fictitious story told by NBC’s Brian Williams, which is spinning into a wider debate over media credibility and accountability, Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, told AP News:

“…the public is right to expect nothing but the truth from our reporters and our news anchors.”

That should be posted in large letters in every newsroom in the world. But clearly news can get infiltrated and changed by opinion, bias and attitude until it becomes more a personal perspective than objective coverage. It can even become an ideology; a vehicle to espouse the reporter’s own views and biases. You don’t need to turn on Fox News to see how biased media coverage can be: anyone who followed our local media’s municipal election coverage knows it can happen closer to home.

“The real difficulty for a news organization, or a reporter, is that once you’ve made one misstep, it’s really hard to earn (trust) back,” said David Westin, former ABC News president. “You can. But it takes a lot of time.”
The incident should remind news organizations that it’s more important to report the news than “brand” their personalities, he said.

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