The sky is falling: negativity bias in social transmission

For June’s edition of the journal club, we’re reading Bebbington et al. (2017): The sky is falling: evidence of a negativity bias in the social transmission of information.

The paper presents the results of a transmission chain experiment in which participants were tasked to reproduce a story that incorporated a series of positive, negative, and ambiguous events. Additionally, state anxiety was manipulated by showing videos to the participants, elevating or reducing the anxious emotion. Using mixed-effects models, the authors demonstrate that negative events are generally transmitted more often than positive events, and that ambiguous events increasingly receive negative interpretations over successive transmissions. State anxiety, however, does not influence the negativity. Taken together, the results are interpreted to show a general negativity bias in social transmission, gradually transforming a story until we are only left to say: The sky is falling!

Feel free to comment with your thoughts on the study below!




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  • Thomas Müller
    Thomas Müller 19 June 2017 (11:54)

    negativity bias
    A very nice experimental study, theoretically plausible and with some good results. One thought I had was whether it might have been better to include a baseline condition with regard to the anxiety manipulation, in that there would have been neutral, elevated, and reduced anxiety, respectively. That way the effect of the manipulation could have been tested against no manipulation as well, showing whether there is some impact on the outcome at all (which we can’t see with the employed contrast). However, as the two conditions do not differ even in this maximal contrast, at most there could have been an effect into one direction for both manipulations (interesting, nevertheless). Maybe if, instead of state anxiety, trait anxiety had been measured, there would be some better results for this part of the experiment. This has also been done in some of the cited literature, and could be supported theoretically because the study is looking for general and permanent effects rather than specific, mood-dependent ones.

    In a similar vein, if the transmission of neutral events had been compared to both positive and negative events as well, I would be confident that an additional positivity bias could be found. In a way, this is what the analysis on ambiguous events shows, because more events become negative and positive than stay ambiguous. Taken together, results like this could provide an interesting bias framework to explain why, say, rumors can become increasingly sensationalist (mostly negative, but sometimes also positive!) and distort an original ambiguous or neutral message.

  • Piers Kelly 20 June 2017 (14:15)

    The banality of truth
    I wonder what would have happened if the participants had been told the story was true? There is a good reason to favour negativity if you’re trying to spin an interesting fictional tale: problems make for interesting plots, while the absence of a problem means there is no opportunity for narrative resolution, be it happy, tragic or otherwise. When listening to a “true” story on the other hand, there is less expectation that the narrative will be intrinsically interesting. It’s OK for the truth to be banal, but boring fiction wastes everyone’s time.