Written by Carl Davidson, Chief Social Scientist, Research First
The last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of the most famous in modern literature. It goes “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. People have argued about what it means for nearly a century, but I like to think it has special meaning for all those who are involved with research in some way – commissioning, delivering or advising on its use.
Being a good researcher means being vigilant about biases. Being a good user of research means being vigilant about acknowledging the existence of biases and mitigating its prejudice wherever possible. And there are more of those biases than you might immediately think. Increasingly, social science is demonstrating that it’s simply human nature for bad news to crowd out the good. Human beings are fundamentally wired to notice, process, and remember negative things much more powerfully than positive ones.
For obvious reasons, psychologists call this the ‘Negativity Bias.’ The notion that this is a ‘bias’ is critical here. It underscores the point that, because negative experiences are much more salient, it’s just one short step from thinking they are more common or likely.
There’s plenty of research that demonstrates how common this bias is but it’s easy to see in everyday life – from breaking news, to headline stories on the six o’clock news, to the stories of woe little Jemimah is likely to unburden on you when you walk through the door at the end of the day.
This tendency is magnified because we really are much more likely to hear from those worst affected by any change – think of the surveys and the loudest voice in the room during the community consultation process. Commentary about a proposed policy that will deliver a small benefit to most people but will leave a minority worse off really is unlikely to come from those who will benefit. This isn’t a conspiracy of silence so much as simple psychology. It happens because our brains experience losses much more profoundly than they experience gains.
If you take $50 from one of your friends and give it to another friend, the one you take it from will be proportionately more upset than the other one will be happy. In fact, the best evidence suggests that loss will have twice the emotional intensity as the gain. Given that, it’s no surprise that those who experience a loss, or fear a loss, make the most noise and attract the most media attention. (as even the most cursory reading of online comments will demonstrate). They are also much more likely to be motivated to participate in research so they can share that negativity.
And it’s not just a problem of participation, it also affects perspective. Taken together, Negativity Bias and Loss Aversion help explain what social scientists call ‘Declinism.’ As the name suggests, this is a common belief that things are in decline and that everything was somehow better in the past. As with all biases, this may seem intensely personal and real, but it’s reassuring to know that people have been writing about the decline of their civilisations pretty much since writing began. It’s a bias that is immune to the benefits of progress.
This in-built inclination toward negativity skews both how people see the world and how motivated they are to talk about it. It is far more pervasive than you might think, and it explains a great deal about what is wrong with the media. It also presents a particular challenge to the communications industry – how to ensure the good news gets the re-run on the late news, the page one headline in tomorrow’s papers, and the centre of conversation on Mike Hosking’s and Duncan Garner’s morning shows.
Which brings us back nicely to The Great Gatsby and Nick Carraway’s reminder that being a good researcher, a good user of research, and a good communicator is always about being “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”