People who watch news about human kindness after seeing disturbing news could feel fewer negative emotions and retain more belief in the goodness of humanity, compared to people given just the bad news, researchers have discovered.
The findings were published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Dr. Kathryn Buchanan, a psychology lecturer at the University of Essex, and colleague Gillian Sandstrom from the University of Sussex in the UK.
It appeared under the title “Buffering the effects of bad news: Exposure to others’ kindness alleviates the aversive effects of viewing others’ acts of immorality.”
How can good news make bad news more bearable?
The authors split 1,800 study participants into different groups. Across all the groups, participants were shown video news clips one to three minutes long or given brief news stories to read – news reporting on a recent UK-based terrorist attack or homicide, pedophilia or bullying (“Immorality” group); reports of kind acts performed in response to the terrorist attack or unrelated kind acts (“Kindness” group); lighthearted, unserious material (“Amusement” group); and content from the Immorality group plus either the Kindness (“Immorality and Kindness”) or the Amusement (“Immorality and Amusement”) group.
The “Immorality” group participants reported both significant increases in negative emotion and significant decreases in positive emotion, as well as more negative perceptions of humanity and society. In comparison, “Immorality and Kindness” participants reported relatively lower increases in negative emotion and lower decreases – or even significant increases – in positive emotion.
“Immorality and Kindness” participants also reported significantly more positive perceptions of humanity than those in the “Immorality” group. The “Immorality and Kindness” group reported more effective mitigation of the negative effects of immorality than the “Immorality and Amusement” group, both in terms of increases in positive emotions and perceptions of society.
The omnipresence of negatively valenced news (the unpleasantness of an emotional stimulus) afforded by a global pandemic has led several researchers to convincingly document its adverse effects on mood and mental health, they wrote. “Specifically, cross-sectional studies using robust sample sizes have repeatedly linked exposure to COVID-related news to poorer mental health, recording higher levels of worry, hopelessness, distress, anxiety and depression.”
The results suggested that positive news can help provide an emotional buffer against negative news. Viewing kind acts – versus merely amusing ones – was especially effective in helping participants retain beliefs about the goodness of others.
The authors said they hope their results would push the media to incorporate more positive coverage and constructive or solution-oriented framing for complex, important issues.
“News stories featuring the best of humanity take the sting out of items exploring the worst of humanity,” they concluded. “This allows people to believe [in and] to maintain a core belief that is crucial for good mental health: that the world and the people in it are fundamentally good.”