So, is bad news really ‘stickier’ than good news?

Muslims waiting for sunset during Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt, 2005. Photo by Otto J. Simon (Wikimedia Commons)
By Otto J. Simon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=484011

I have been pondering some ideas for an article I am working on about optimism in conservation, and one of them is the idea that bad news is ‘sticky’ and creates a frame that means people tend to discount ‘good’ news stories.

This idea comes from psychological research, and I first heard of it when I was reading more writing by Nancy Knowlton, the distinguished scientist who effectively began the optimism movement in conservation story-telling. She had been teaching young marine scientists in California in the early 2000s when she realized that the way environmental issues were being taught was more like reading the obituaries section than the births section of a newspaper.

As she pondered this more, she discovered that one of the reasons was because the people she would have expected to be informed about achievements in conservation, didn’t know about them. Part of the answer, she said, was to create a database where people could easily find these stories, and to share them widely with the public.

But she also, it seemed to me, was rather uncertain about whether sharing all these stories of successes would change a prevailing public narrative. And that was how she wound up discovering the ‘sticky narrative’ research.

So I have been pondering this ‘catch-22’ conservation narrative. If it starts with warning the world about the dangers of overfishing, for example, or how the warming climate is endangering the ocean, and that idea sticks in the public mind, then how can the stories of sustainable fishing and ocean protection break through to create a different picture?

The research she pointed to, says that it is harder for us to move from a ‘loss’ perspective to a ‘gain’ perspective, but easier to move from ‘gain’ to ‘loss’. But explaining these apparent findings can be perplexing.

And, maybe because I am a contrarian, I have been wondering if it’s really true that ‘bad’ news is stickier than ‘good’ news. I just read three stories that suggested to me that, actually, good ideas may actually be stickier than bad ones. To wit:

People in a few northeastern Oklahoma towns have been engaged in a lovely project to unobtrusively help out people who are in need. They buy meals in advance at local restaurants and post the receipts on the restaurant wall. Anyone who needs a meal can go and take a receipt off the wall and be treated just like a regular customer. The volunteer mayor says it is a reflection of the small town values he grew up with, and the idea spread virally in the town and nearby towns. In fact, the idea itself came from something an Arkansas restaurant had done in 2019. An assistant manager at the local Walmart shared the story with a local restaurant owner and said she’d be happy to pay for a meal a week. The owner posted a notice at the entrance to the restaurant, and the idea spread from there, and appears to have gotten widespread social media approval.

Or this one: In Cairo, there has long been a tradition during Ramadan of well-off people buying meals so the needy can break their fast after sunset. One woman and her mother and a friend have been doing this for a number of years. This year, they decided to do two good things at one time. 

They had heard from a friend about a chef who was in financial need. So they decided to buy the meals from him this year. And then they shared the idea via social media, and many other people decided to do the same thing. The chef said that people got in touch who wanted to pay for meals that he could distribute to the needy. Others just wanted to help him. The result was that he has a lot more business than he has had for a while, and many people who needed it also got help.

Finally, I came across a fascinating report in Fast Company about a new maternity hospital in Senegal that had been designed for free by a noted Swiss architect and built at low cost by local labour. When I read more, I was intrigued to discover that the project was just the tip of an iceberg of practical, locally-appropriate help offered in Senegal by a foundation that in turn was inspired by an American man’s visit to the country more than a decade ago.

So when I look at these stories, of how when people hear about a need and are given a practical way to help out, I question this ‘stickiness’ research finding. It does seem to me that the natural human instinct is to help when we can, to give when it doesn’t necessarily benefit us personally.

There are, indeed, some people who seem skeptical of everything that sounds like a ‘good news’ story. But there are, I am firmly convinced, many more who – when they hear about a way to help out – will enthusiastically take up the opportunity. The challenge, I guess, is to find practical ways to let them do so. And this is what seems key to the ‘suspended coffee’ movement from a few years back, or the ‘put the meal receipt on the wall’ strategy, or the ‘give directly’ aid movement. It gives us a useful way to help out – and given it, most of us will take it. It becomes, you might say, “sticky”.