News content is dominated by negativity. Does this have negative consequences for political attitudes, or interest, or policymaking? Professor of Communication Studies and Center for Political Studies (CPS) researcher Stuart Soroka considers these questions in his book Negativity in Democratic Politics.
Drawing on a combination of survey data, lab experiments, and large-scale content analyses, Soroka finds strong evidence for both the predominance of negative information in political news, and the increased impact this negative information has on public attitudes (in contrast with positive information). He finds, for instance, that negative information has a stronger impact than positive information on individuals’ assessments of political candidates. He finds that individuals are more physiologically activated by negative news. At the aggregate level, Soroka also finds that negative magazine covers sell more copies than positive versions; and that negative shifts in the economy have a bigger impact on public opinion than do positive shifts. Interestingly, this holds true across many different countries, as Soroka’s analyses include most OECD countries. Negativity biases are not just an American peculiarity, then – they are evident around the world.
What are the consequences of all this negativity? Soroka suggests that a negativity bias may well be an efficient way of dealing with very complex information environments. There is just too much information about politics for us to keep track of it all, and selecting information based on negativity might be one useful way of focusing on the information that matters most. As a consequence, humans focus on negative information; and we seem to have designed institutions that focus on the negative as well. That said, there may be long-term consequences of a political information environment that is predominantly negative. So while assessing the long-term impact of negativity is difficult, it is probably an important step in both understanding political behavior and in developing objectives for the design of mass media and political institutions.