My work on negativity in news content and politics is currently focused on Attention to Negative News: Evolutionary and Cultural Accounts, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the LSA at the University of Michigan, and the Hebrew University. The project is a collaboration between myself, Patrick Fournier and Lilach Nir; the most recent paper is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Related work relying on physiological experimentation has been published with Stephen McAdams in Political Communication, with Elisabeth Gidengil in Politics and Gender, with Penelope Daignault and Thierry Giasson in the CJC, and Johanna Dunaway and Vin Arceneaux in PLOS ONE.
This research program focuses on the human tendency to give more weight to negative information than to positive information. The importance of this “negativity bias” in the political sphere is clear. Negativity biases affect the content of political news, and structure the content of political debate; attentiveness to negative information has also been linked to voting behavior and policy preferences. It follows that negativity biases have a significant effect on the nature, quality and functioning of representative democracy. Inadequate or biased political knowledge, systematic biases in what citizens perceive about their governments and the world around them, citizen apathy and disengagement — these are just some of the consequences attributed to negativity in politics. Where does this negativity bias come from? Is it reinforced (and perhaps worsened) by political and media institutions? These are the questions that motivate this project.
Our lab-experimental, psychophysiological research centers around one question in particular: Does the negativity bias, evident in our reactions to news content, vary across countries and cultures? There is no research that currently provides an answer, but answering this question is central to understanding where negativity biases come from in the first place. The answer also has important implications for how we understand political communication, behavior (including policy preferences, and political participation), and institutions.
The project involves experiments run in 17 countries over a five-year period. Data collection has been completed, we have presented preliminary results at conferences including the Toronto Political Behavior Workshop, the Hendricks Symposium, the ICA, and the NYU CESS 10th Annual Experimental Political Science Conference. In additional to several ongoing papers, our findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, as “Cross-national evidence of a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to news.” Results are preliminary; all papers rely on the current draft of our Methododological Appendix, which explains in detail the structure of our experiments.