Why negative messages gain traction
Did Stanley Kubrick fake the moon landings? Was President Obama holding a rocket launcher in a car with an ISIS leader? Does your favorite shampoo cause hair loss?No, no and probably not, according to Snopes’ “25 Hottest Urban Legends.”
Fear appeals work (Rev Up Readership members only; join Rev Up Readership), according to 50 years of research and 100 studies reviewed by researchers Kim Witte and Mike Allen. But what makes bad news — even when it’s not real news — gain such traction?
It’s evolutionary, writes Matthew Hutson in a recent article in The Atlantic. The more likely a message is to help us survive a threat (or find a mate), the more likely we are to believe it, remember it and share it.
- Fear appeals are more believable. In one study, subjects ranked the sources of negative messages (leeches clinging to your feet, software frying your hard drive, meat turning bitter on the stove) as much as 287% more knowledgeable than messages about the same subjects but with neutral themes. (Pascal Boyer & Nora Parren, “Threat-Related Information Suggests Competence,” PLOS One, June 2015)
- Fear appeals are more memorable. In another study, subjects read an urban legend, rewrote it from memory, and passed it on to the next person in a sequence like the game of telephone. At the end of the chain, subjects remembered the legends that would help them survive (serial killers and spiders) or rise socially (cybersex) much better than the control information. (Joseph M. Stubbersfield, Jamshid J. Tehrani & Emma G. Flynn, “Serial Killers, Spiders and Cybersex,” British Journal of Psychology, May 2015)
- Fear appeals get shared. When researchers analyzed 220 urban legends, they found that the stories were much more likely to mention threats than benefits. That makes sense: Evolutionarily, believing in a fake hazard is less harmful than disregarding a real one. And subjects found statements about topics ranging from German shepherds to Lasik surgery more believable when they mentioned risks, like mauling or double vision. (Daniel M. T. Fessler, Anne C. Pisor & Carlos David Navarrete, “Negatively-Biased Credulity and the Cultural Evolution of Beliefs,” PLOS One, April 2014)
For decades, fear appeals have been more effective (Rev Up Readership members only; join Rev Up Readership) at getting people to do everything from duck and cover to avoid texting while driving.
Why not accentuate the negative in your next campaign?