Millions of people now get their news online. But with so much online content to consume and so little time to consume it, editors at news outlets know that writing “catchy” headlines is more important than ever. So, what makes a headline catchy? A new study published in Nature Human Behaviour found that negative emotion words in headlines made it more likely that consumers would click through and read the story. In contrast, positive emotion words decreased click rates.
The idea that people are more attentive to negative things is not a new one. Journalists have always had this intuition (captured in phrases like “if it bleeds, it leads”), and psychology studies have backed it up. People dislike losses more than they like gains, and they overweigh negative information in many contexts. Even infants pay more attention to negative stimuli. This negativity bias makes some sense from an evolutionary perspective: If you miss out on an opportunity to forage for some delicious berries, you will be sad…but if you accidentally eat a poison mushroom, you will be dead.
Given this negativity bias, do people tend to engage more with negative news content online? Previous research suggests that the answer is yes. For example, people share more content if it makes them angry. But a lot of this research has been done either in a controlled lab setting, or it has been correlational, so we can’t know for sure if negativity actually causes people to consume news more.
That’s why the dataset analyzed by Robertson and colleagues is so special. First of all, it is data on the number of clicks (“click-through rate” is the technical term) in response to >105,000 headlines on the news site Upworthy. Therefore, these are real decisions being made by real people. Moreover, Upworthy often tested out (through random assignment) different headlines for the same exact story, so they essentially ran experiments on their users. Therefore, even when the content of the news story was exactly the same, when editors put negative words like “hate” and “worst” into the headline, more people clicked on it, and when they included positive words like “love,” and “best,” fewer people clicked through.
Not only does this paper tell us more about the factors that influence online news consumption, but it also showcases the nuanced ways in which emotion influences decision-making. The researchers found that words about sadness increased click-through rates, but words about fear actually decreased them (and anger words had no significant effect). Now, we don’t know if people were actually feeling those emotions when they read the headlines, so we will need more studies to explore these effects further. However, given that different discrete emotions might be associated with different appraisals of one’s current situation, it makes sense that not all negative emotions would have the same downstream effects on behavior. For example, previous research has shown that people are more optimistic and risk-seeking when they are angry, but they are more pessimistic and risk-averse when they are afraid.
In the future, it will be interesting to see how generalizable these findings are. For instance, this study did not look at individual differences in news consumption, and it is possible that the results would depend on the reader’s personality or age (e.g., older adults are less susceptible to negativity bias). But I’m excited about the trend of psychologists digging into real-world decision-making data to gain insights into the ways that emotion impacts decision-making.
P.S. Not only is this article a great example of collaboration between academia and industry, it is also the result of a collaboration between two research groups, who both got the same results at the same time and submitted them to the same journal! To read about how that collaboration unfolded, check out this post from the lead author, Claire Robertson.