Good news doesn’t just cheer us up

Studies have shown how we are more likely to remember negative events than good ones, which may be a factor in the media’s focus on bad news. But good news does more than simply cheer us up; new research shows how it also affects behaviour and benefits society

While reciting the epitaph of Julius Caesar in an intense moment of the Shakespearean play, Anthony says: “…the evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones”. This statement could be just a brilliant theatrical example of Roman public speaking, however, what Anthony says seems to be true for a lot of us.

In fact, several studies show that the majority of people are more likely to remember being hurt or unfairly treated by others rather than remember when they have experienced kindness and generosity.

This could be one of the explanations behind a bias in much news reporting. The status quo in journalism is to consider bad news such as terrorism, murder or natural disasters more newsworthy and attractive to readers than positive stories. Although it may be true that negative stories have a greater power in human memories than the good ones, there is no scientific evidence showing that people prefer bad news.

On the contrary, several studies show that good news has a strong positive psychological and social impact on people. According to research published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, when people are experiencing acts of extraordinary moral goodness they can experience ‘moral elevation’, a psychological condition that contributes to the development of positive thoughts and emotions such as admiration, affection, and love. It can even cause physical reactions that cause a lasting influence on people’s future actions.

“Studies show that good news has a strong positive psychological and social impact on people”

This phenomenon is often in relation to how we feel when we see an extraordinary object, such as a painting, or a sculpture. However, researchers argue that when moral elevation is stimulated by exposure to actions of ‘extraordinary goodness’ – for example through the news – people can be moved and in some cases transformed. In this case, moral elevation can produce specific physical reactions, such as a sense of heat (mainly found in the abdominal area) and physical feelings of emotion like a lump in the throat. Eventually it can lead to more empathic attitudes, increased social interactions, and other behavioural changes known as prosocial actions.

Although such reactions have been registered in almost all study participants, psychologists have found that everyone has a unique moral identity. This is what influences us when we make a choice. People with ‘higher’ moral identity are more likely to experience moral elevation, but almost all individuals when reading, watching or listening to news of ‘extraordinary goodness’, experience a more positive predisposition towards others and are more likely to behave in a prosocial way.

The chemistry of good news

Although there is not yet extensive research on the psychological or physiological response to witnessing good deeds, several studies show that emotional reactions to virtue (or moral elevation) may involve the release of oxytocin.

Best known as the cuddle drug, oxytocin is a natural hormone, for which increased levels in the blood have been associated with feelings of contentment, confidence, wellbeing, empathy, satisfaction and love, as well as with combating anxiety.

The American neuroeconomist Paul Zac, who has conducted several studies to measure the relationship between morality and oxytocin, is convinced that human interaction that takes place through social media can release substantial amounts of oxytocin in the blood. This results in increased connection to others, forming the basis of kind and generous behaviours.

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So why do so many people focus on the bad? Author and personal coach Monica Giordani considers that as well as the media, society and the education system are also responsible for this. “As soon as we grow we learn how to control ourselves and this is because the messages we get from school, family, culture – albeit with a good intentions – are focused toward things that don’t work and what we need to improve.”

From school age, she says, we are judged according to the mistakes that we make rather than being rewarded and encouraged for our natural and individual inclinations. Socially speaking, good actions are often minimised and generally labelled as a normal consequence of educational pressures and social conventions and thus they are taken for granted.

But is there any bigger mistake than taking goodness for granted, considering, as Shakespeare wrote: “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Perhaps if we were to focus more on the good, we would find that the world is not in fact as weary as we’ve been led to believe.

Positive News is currently collaborating with Buone Notizie to share our learning about how to create a more constructive news media. This work is being supported by Regione Lombardia in Italy.

Our research and will inform further development of the ‘constructive journalism’ concept, which is being promoted by the Transformational Media Initiative, a network with which Buone Notizie and Positive News are partners.