How Does Negative News Affect the Brain?

man checking news in a tablet

We all have felt overwhelmed, sadness, and other powerful emotions after watching the news coverage of a crime or scrolling social media after a tragedy. We are moved by the story and even feel empathy for the victims or protagonists of the negative news.

How does negative news affect the brain? According to research by Harvard University, negativity is contagious, and by consuming negative content, it’s more likely you act negatively around others.

As a longevity ghostwriter, I interview scientists weekly, some for professional reasons, others because their research interests me, and I want to share it with my blog’s readers.

Mental health is increasingly becoming a policy priority. According to the CDC, of every 10 children, one young person experiences anxiety, 2.7 million children experience depression, and it is not uncommon for a child to have an undiagnosed mood disorder.

Tyler J. VanderWeele, Ph.D., is Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University.

His work in positive psychology has led him to study the potential negative effect of bad news and to elucidate if there’s a way to tackle this negativity bias.

In an email exchange, he authorized me to use his research verbatim after I posed the following questions, trying to understand how a news story can affect brain function.

Let’s begin.

Why does negative news matter for health now, or why is this happening now?

Evidence shows that negative media reporting has increased substantially in recent years. This negative reporting adversely affects social interactions and health/well-being outcomes.

woman checking her phone surrounded by hands making a thumbs down

What statistics or data support the link between negative news and health?

Analysis shows a 2+ standard deviation increase in negative news reporting from 1979-2010. Studies show witnessing negative events makes people act more negatively toward others, while positive events encourage altruism. Each positive interaction may triple subsequent positive actions through contagion effects.

How are the health impacts of negative news different from before?

Negative news reporting and its impacts have substantially increased over time. Past levels of negativity did not have the same widespread effects on social interactions and health as current high levels.

What is “the answer” to the bad news problem?

If news media committed to reporting one positive story for every three negative ones, and viewers only engaged with media outlets following this ratio, it could dramatically improve social interactions, well-being, and public health.


Serg Valencia

Serg Valencia

Serg Valencia is a Longevity Ghostwriter and Master in Neuroscience empowering longevity pioneers to communicate their life-extending vision.

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