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Accentuate the Negative: How Our Brains Are Hardwired to Expect the Worst in Fandom and More

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I know you’ve all been there: innocently scrolling through Twitter, ignoring the news in favor of fandom fun, just going about your day. Then, you see it. A retweet of someone you’ve never met saying that your favorite actor is untalented. Or maybe it’s a Tumblr post about how your OTP ship is never going to happen, or a review that says Wonder Woman was “just okay.” Despite the hundred other happy tweets and Tumbls you just read that made you happy, this one … this is the one that gets you going.

You screenshot it, send it to your group chat and then yell about what an idiot this person is. You quote and go off on a multi-chapter Twitter thread about how this moron is the wrongest wrong to ever wrong. You devote hours to crafting the perfect blog response. You spend the whole next few days subtweeting this FOOL, but in the end, you know you’ve shown them. You may have spent the last hour or week angry, but you’ve won. That is until you, in a completely not obsessive way, check their Twitter feed and see them being wrong again! And so the cycle begins anew.

If this sounds harrowingly familiar, you’re not alone. It’s part of what we do in fandom (and on the internet in general): fun, fic … and fighting. But why? Debate is fun and healthy, and some behavior does deserve a (calm and rational) call-out. But most of the time, no one’s mind ever gets changed by these arguments and they certainly don’t make anyone particularly happy. That person that said horrible things about your fave and their family is still awful no matter how many angry tweets you send before they block you. And yet you still find yourself drawn into the drama.

As it turns out, that obsession with the nasty part of fandom isn’t just a trend created by trolls and the accessible outrage of the social media age. It’s a genuine psychological phenomenon called negativity bias. Obsessing over the bad and ignoring the good isn’t just something we do because we’re all Eeyore, it’s something that’s hardwired into our brains.

Negativity bias has been studied for many years. It’s the tendency of the brain to give far more weight to negative stimulus than positive. It’s intense enough that it shows up on brain scans, where participants brains would remain neutral for normal and happy stimulus but light up for the negative stuff. That’s why the one tweet in a hundred that says something mean gets you going more than all the others. Why does this phenomenon exist in the first place? Paying attention to negative things in favor of everything else certainly doesn’t make us happy.

According to the big brains that study these things, it has to do how we evolved to survive. Back in the days when getting attacked or eaten or was a slightly bigger threat, it was good for our brain to react strongly to negative things. When you see a lion running to kill you, you should prioritize that observation, be scared and react aggressively. Fear and vigilance is how we survived. So, while life has changed, our brains have not and we’re left with programming that gives an outsized impact to negative input. Negativity bias is a product of a primal fear and survivalist anger, and, as a small green friend once warned, anger and fear lead to hate and hate leads to the dark side. And boy does it get dark fast.

Negativity bias plays out in many aspects of our lives. We could have friends or partners that are usually supportive and kind, but when they say something mean or critical, it feels like the end of the world. The same goes for workplaces where a single bad performance review can seem like disaster, or driving in traffic when that one car that cuts you off just gets you so mad. It’s a depressingly huge factor in the political world, where negative ads and attacks have much more impact than positive ones. We’ve already talked about how it shows up all the time in fandom: negativity sells, or gets engagement at least, there’s a lot of it everywhere and the effect on us can be psychologically and emotionally exhausting. When you’re already in a bad place, can you guess what sort of stimulus to which you would be more receptive?

There’s no definitive measure of how powerful a negative statement is compared to a positive one, since that kind of impact can’t readily be quantified. Actors and creators experience this all the time, going by the adage that it takes ten positive reviews to ease the sting of a negative one. Some psychologists suggest that it takes five positive interactions with a friend or partner to negate one negative one. Whether five or ten time stronger or more, negativity has serious power compared to positive sentiments.

The way this plays out in fandom is that the negative nellies have an influence that far exceeds their actual numbers. These negative statements get more attention than the positive ones, so thus, people are encouraged to make more negative statements. What follows is a snowball effect where more people either feed the trolls because their brains automatically make them want to, or people see the attention negativity gets and engage in negativity themselves. Thus, a few people can change the entire tone of a fandom or conversation from one of joy to a big fight that’s never going to change hearts or minds. Add to that the way negativity biases magnify all of this and the bad just keeps getting worse.

You hear a lot about “toxic fandom,” and I think that’s a very bad characterization, but it can happen—or it may seem to happen because of the outsized impact negative content has. No one talks about the love a show or creator gets every day, only the hate they may get once. Most people in a fandom are nice people just going about their business, shipping their ships, loving their characters, writing their fics and having fun. But a few people with a lot of anger can make it seem like the whole fandom is a big frothing pool of hate.

In truth, that’s just a pond and fandom is an ocean. One person talking with a megaphone can be louder than a whole crowd, but in the end, they’re still one person. And by being aware of the fact they have a megaphone, you can take it away. Understanding how our brains work and adjusting our perceptions based on that is the first step.

So, next time you see that mean tweet or read that horrible review, take a step back and consider what responding to it will do. Can you change this person’s mind? Will it matter at all if you do? Is what they’re saying doing any real harm, except to your feelings? And will engaging with them only make the problem worse? Even better, before sending hate, consider if that’s the fandom environment you want to create. Remember that being positive may not be as powerful, but enough nice can eventually drown out the nasty. Fandom feels are valid and powerful, but as another guy said, with great power comes great responsibility. So, tweet accordingly.

(image: Shutterstock/Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley)

Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.

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