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Why bad news is bad, or not
"THINGS look really bad huh," someone said the other day.
It's easy to nod in agreement. The bad news won't let up. On Friday, it was announced that the Singapore economy performed worse than the market had expected in Q3, expanding just 0.6 per cent compared to a year ago, according to advance estimates. Before that, the latest labour market report for the second quarter showed that the overall unemployment rate rose from 1.9 per cent in March to 2.1 per cent in June. The property market remains in the doldrums, the stock market uninspiring, and talk of companies shedding jobs here has become depressingly common.
Are there no good things happening around us at all?
It's an interesting question. Logic tells us that good things must still be happening, but why do bad news so preoccupy us?
Two years ago, the BBC ran an article on an intriguing piece of research. Two researchers, Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka, set up an experiment, conducted at McGill University in Canada, to explore whether people actually take to bad news more than good news, even though everyone would say they welcome good news. Until then, previous research on how people reacted to the news was deemed unsatisfactory, with the studies uncontrolled or unrealistic.
The team came up with a new experiment.
Mr Trussler and Mr Soroka invited participants to come to the lab for "a study of eye tracking". The volunteers were first asked to select some stories about politics to read from a news website so that a camera could make some baseline eye-tracking measures. They were told to actually read the articles, so the right measurements could be prepared, but it didn't matter what they read. After this, they watched a short video and then they answered questions on the kind of political news they would like to read.
The results of the experiment, as well as the stories that were read most, were "somewhat depressing", the BBC reported. Participants often chose stories with a negative tone - corruption, setbacks, hypocrisy and so on - rather than neutral or positive stories. People who were more interested in current affairs and politics were particularly likely to choose the bad news. And yet when asked, the same people said they preferred good news.
The researchers presented their experiment as evidence of negativity bias, the psychologist's term for the collective hunger to hear and remember bad news.
They put forward several explanations. Humans are instinctively primed to avoid danger, so that makes them notice bad news more. Another, more positive, interpretation: We pay attention to bad news because we think the world is a better place that it actually is. This view of the world, that things should be less bad, makes bad news, news.
It provides an alternative view of the current pessimism. Current GDP growth is bad news, because Singapore has grown faster in the past, and Singaporeans expect the country to be doing better. The rise in unemployment rate (still very low in global terms) is bad news, because we expect everyone to find meaningful jobs. Companies downsizing to adapt to changing conditions is bad news, because we expect our companies to be always growing and expanding. So, arguably, bad news appears so bad because we expect, maybe demand, things to be much better, and ourselves to always do well. That, in a way, is a positive outlook, not a negative one. Or, as the researchers put it, it is only against a light background that the dark spots are highlighted.
And there surely have been bright spots this year for Singapore too, uplifting ones even. Just that, perhaps, it wasn't the sort of good news we're conditioned to expect: Joseph Schooling winning gold in the 100m butterfly at the Olympics, attaining Singapore's first-ever Olympic gold and beating the legendary Michael Phelps; Yip Pin Xiu winning two gold medals at the Paralympics, with Theresa Goh winning another bronze medal; Yvonne Ng becoming an Oscar winner with her first overseas production short film, Cloud Kumo, at the 43rd Student Academy Awards; Nathan Hartono becoming the first Singaporean to reach the finals of the immensely popular Sing! China show and coming in second; and Singaporean student Kenneth Sng giving the opening address at the just concluded second US presidential debate at Washington University in St Louis.
Away from the headlines, others are making good too in different ways: artists pursuing their passion, hawkers defying convention, startup founders testing the unknown. There's talent bubbling away, if we want to see it, even as established ways come under siege.
Collectively, redefining what's good news may be what's needed at a time of pessimism, for a country brought up on old measurements of success. Undeniably, often, bad news is just bad. But sometimes, change the lens, and perhaps, the view will become a little brighter.