An interest in serious news and cat videos is not mutually exclusive. I know this intellectually, but it’s not always easy to prove. A cursory glance at this week’s big news headlines tells me that our country’s obsession with Donald Trump and his running list of nominees continues. A cursory glance at my social media feeds? A whole lot of fluff.
I guess the question is: Does it matter that we’re attracted to lighter pieces? They’re certainly palatable. But running away from serious and potentially difficult topics, like what is happening in Syria right now, or the protests in Standing Rock, has ripple effects. We’re currently embroiled in a battle against misleading media positioning. What divides readable content from shareable content — the latter, of course, much more likely to go viral and reach more people? What do those differentiators say about us as consumers? Perhaps more importantly, what implications do they have for the media, an entity whose bottom line is directly affected by virality?
I reached out to Dr. Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at UPenn’s Wharton School, who says that our propensity for fluff isn’t surprising. Through his research, which studied articles published by The New York Times during a three month time period, Dr. Berger found that content which evokes positive feelings is much more likely to go viral than that which evokes negative feelings. Within those valences, his research shows that content which stimulates high psychological arousal — happiness, awe, anger, hate, anxiety—is much more likely to lead to virility than content that evokes low arousal emotions, like sadness, shame or guilt.
That’s why, as an audience, we often end up consuming “news” that creates drama or conflict as opposed to information-heavy reporting. It simply sells better. Dr. Berger and his colleague, Dr. Katherine Milkman, found that changing a story by amping it up on the psychological arousal scale made it more shared. Shares also increased when an otherwise sad occurrence was coupled with a happy ending. A business has to follow the trends, which is why so much of what we read and consume panders to often-subconscious preferences. As an audience, we’re notorious for our love of happy endings. The movie business, the publishing world, Facebook — they’ve all become wise to this.
Back in the 1990s, Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s research lead to the naming of this very phenomenon: the peak-end rule. Dr. Kahneman studied people getting a colonoscopy and asked them to report their pain or discomfort throughout the procedure. He found that in reporting back about the experience, people recounted their overall memory of it. The overall memory was most affected by the most intense part of the procedure, and the way it ended. Thus, peak-end.
What this means for us practically is that how we judge any particular thing is heavily influenced by how the experience ends. That is our takeaway, and that’s what we store in our memory. A merging of Drs. Berger and Kahneman’s findings would show that — psychologically, at least — we’re most attracted to and willing to share happy stories that end well.
“People are social animals,” explained Dr. Berger. “To get important political and social information shared, we have to understand why fluff pieces get transmitted, and use those insights to make important news catchier.”
I’m curious: What pushes you to hit the like and share button? Do you consciously try to stay away from topics that are more serious, or potentially upsetting? Sound off below!
Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.