Bad News Becomes Hysteria in Crowds

Summary: Researchers reveal news stories about potential threats become more negative, hysterical and inaccurate when passed from person to person. The study reveals the effect is not counteracted by presenting people with more balanced and neutral facts.

Source: University of Warwick.

News stories about terrorism, disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and other potential threats become increasingly negative, inaccurate and hysterical when passed from person to person, according to new research by the University of Warwick.

Led by Professor Thomas Hills in Warwick’s Department of Psychology, the study finds that even drawing the public’s attention to unbiased, neutral facts does not mitigate this contagion of panic.

This is the first research ever to investigate the impact of dread on the social amplification of threat, and to examine the re-exposure of balanced information on the social diffusion of messages.

The results have important implications for contemporary society – with the constant proliferation of news stories (both legitimate and fake), rumours, retweets and messages across social media.

The researchers analysed 154 participants on social media. They were split into 14 chains of 8 people, with the first person in each chain reading balanced, factual news articles, and writing a message to the next person about the story, the recipient writing a new message for the next person, and so on.

lots of lego people in a crowd
News stories about potential threats become more negative, inaccurate and hysterical when passed from person to person – new University of Warwick research finds image is in the public domain.

The sixth person in each chain was given the message from the previous person, alongside the original neutral news story.

In every chain, stories about dreaded topics became increasingly more negative, and biased toward panic and fear as it was passed from person to person – and crucially, this effect was not mitigated when the original unbiased facts were reintroduced.

The original neutral information had virtually no effect on reducing people’s increasingly negative outlook.

Professor Thomas Hills from the University of Warwick’s Department of Psychology, commented:

“Society is an amplifier for risk. This research explains why our world looks increasingly threatening despite consistent reductions in real-world threats.

“It also shows that the more people share information, the further that information gets from the facts and the more resilient it becomes to correction.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Luke Walton – University of Warwick
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Bad News Has Wings: Dread Risk Mediates Social Amplification in Risk Communication” by Robert D. Jagiello and Thomas T. Hills in Risk Analysis. Published May 29 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of Warwick “Bad News Becomes Hysteria in Crowds.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 7 June 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of Warwick (2018, June 7). Bad News Becomes Hysteria in Crowds. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved June 7, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of Warwick “Bad News Becomes Hysteria in Crowds.” (accessed June 7, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Bad News Has Wings: Dread Risk Mediates Social Amplification in Risk Communication

Social diffusion of information amplifies risk through processes of birth, death, and distortion of message content. Dread risk—involving uncontrollable, fatal, involuntary, and catastrophic outcomes (e.g., terrorist attacks and nuclear accidents)—may be particularly susceptible to amplification because of the psychological biases inherent in dread risk avoidance. To test this, initially balanced information about high or low dread topics was given to a set of individuals who then communicated this information through diffusion chains, each person passing a message to the next. A subset of these chains were also reexposed to the original information. We measured prior knowledge, perceived risk before and after transmission, and, at each link, number of positive and negative statements. Results showed that the more a message was transmitted the more negative statements it contained. This was highest for the high dread topic. Increased perceived risk and production of negative messages was closely related to the amount of negative information that was received, with domain knowledge mitigating this effect. Reexposue to the initial information was ineffectual in reducing bias, demonstrating the enhanced danger of socially transmitted information.

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