Say a friend mentioned that she had raised enough money from running a marathon to sponsor expensive eye surgery for an Indian child. Another friend then said he had just been told he had a congenital eye disorder and would probably be blind in five years.
Chances are, you would share both anecdotes with others. Both examples provoke strong emotions — happiness in the case of the marathon runner and sadness for the friend with the eye condition. But one of the stories would be passed on more than the other.
According to psychology researchers from the UK, Australia and the Netherlands, it would be the anecdote of the marathon runner. It is a feel-good story. The eye story is a heartbreaking, tragic story without a happy ending. Nobody wants to be like Saturday Night Live’s Debbie Downer ("You’re enjoying your day. Everything’s going your way. Then along comes Debbie Downer").
Professors Berger and Milkman at the Wharton School found that sadness affected which stories readers of the New York Times shared. They analyzed thousands of articles that made the “most emailed” list on the Times’s website over three months, taking into account factors that would influence a story’s popularity, such as its prominence on the website, the sex of the writer, or the story’s length.The more depressing the story, the least likely we are to want to tell others about itAlfred Hermida, UBC Graduate School of Journalism
Sad stories, such as President Obama mourning the passing of his grandmother or the suicide of a Korean actress, were far less popular than an upbeat account of a play telling the story of newcomers to New York City who fall in love.The more depressing the story, the least likely we are to want to tell others about it. With happiness, intensity fuels sharing; sadness triggers the opposite response.
The Penn professors tested the idea by exposing their students to two different news articles about people recovering from injuries. One was the heartbreaking story of a person maimed in the 9/11 attacks. The other was about a person recovering after a fall down the stairs. The students were reluctant to pass on the story about the 9/11 victim, even though it had a much greater emotional impact.
Yet sad stories can go viral if they are presented in the appropriate context. In January 2014, the Daily Mail reported on a thirty-three-year-old mother dying of cancer who would never get to see her toddler grow up. At first glance, it seems to be a depressing tale of loss. But visitors to the Daily Mail’s website shared the story almost four thousand times.
The key difference was the framing of the story: the article focused on how the mother, Rowena, was leaving a legacy for her son by writing cards to celebrate his birthdays up to age twenty-one, as well as cards for his first day at school, graduation and wedding. The article framed Rowena’s story as one about the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It was designed to leave readers feeling inspired, rather than dejected.Shifting the focus away from sadness changes a story’s emotional footprint, helping it travel further on social networksAlfred Hermida, UBC Graduate School of Journalism
Media outlets are getting smart about framing stories that involve a problem but also have some kind of positive outcome. Sonya Song spotted the trend in the most conversational stories posted to Facebook by the Boston Globe. People shared stories about runners who, having failed to finish the Boston Marathon after the bombings in 2013, had been invited back to complete the race. Or about a child saved after a natural disaster. We seem to be suckers for a happy ending.
Websites that make a virtue of generating buzz around their stories, such as Upworthy and Viral Nova, have become skilled in coming up with headlines that turn a sad tale on its head. Shifting the focus away from sadness changes a story’s emotional footprint, helping it travel further on social networks.
Be Wary of Fear
The old adage in news is that if it bleeds, it leads. On any evening newscast, there never seems to be a shortage of murders, shootings or traffic accidents happening in town. Crime appears to be everywhere, and the more unusual and violent the crime, the more coverage it gets.
Crime reporting has long been a media staple: bad news sells, while good news is no news. The coverage seeks to grab our attention by tapping into the emotion of fear. A newspaper headline warning of "stranger danger" is designed to lure more people to buy the paper. TV anchors going on about a gangland shooting are trying to stop viewers from switching channels.
Fear is visceral, instinctual. It is a reaction to danger that serves as a survival mechanism. In a socially hostile situation — say, someone being aggressive at a bar – most people will try to extricate and protect themselves. They see a threat, assess it and react to it.
But we are lousy at accurately evaluating risk, as fear works on an emotional, rather than rational, level. Take the public perception of crime. Most Americans believe violent crime has been increasing over the past decade. The truth, though, is that violent crime has been on a downward trend since 1994.
While fear has long been used to sell newspapers and boost TV ratings, it is not an emotion we share readily with others. Fear can be a powerful motivator for action, but for not sharing.Fear is not a negative emotion we want to provoke in others, in much the way we don’t want to share sadnessAlfred Hermida, UBC Graduate School of Journalism
Researchers Kim Peters, Yoshima Kashima and Anna Clark tested the idea with Australian university students to see how they would deal with frightful anecdotes about college life. They found that the students were unlikely to pass on a story about a random beating of a fellow student. While bad news is a mainstay of the media, people tend to avoid passing on information that makes others feel bad or fearful.
As a general rule, fear tends to diminish the desire to share. But there are situations when we deliberately take on the role of Debbie Downer. When Stanford University professor Chip Heath was at the University of Chicago in the 1990s, he was curious about whether people had a preference for good or bad news.
He put the idea to the test by seeing how willing undergraduate students were to tell others about muggings in the Hyde Park neighbourhood the university occupies. The results contradicted the general belief that people shy away from passing on bad news. The students consistently chose to share bad news about muggings, even though it might trigger emotions of fear among friends.
The difference here is the context for these conversations. At the time, muggings were a common topic of conversation for the residents of Hyde Park. Since the topic was already commonplace, students would have felt less inhibited about sharing their fear.
In such situations, there is a social good at play. Telling others about the level of muggings is a way of warning them of the dangers of crime in the area. It shows that there are times when spreading fear is helping the community, if the context is right. But as a general rule, fear is not a negative emotion we want to provoke in others, in much the way we don’t want to share sadness.
'Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters', by Dr. Alfred Hermida, former BBC journalist and director of the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, is out now through Penguin Random House.
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