Negated and thus true? Why we are more likely to believe negatively framed statements

Today we have constant access to news from all over the world through various channels. How do we determine whether to believe something or dismiss it as -fake news-- Researchers from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Basel have studied how people make judgments of truth.

Navigating the constant torrent of information we encounter each day is difficult. We have to ask ourselves whether what we have just read is really true. This is not an easy decision to make, and people do not always possess the capacity to do so. Emotions and stress also affect how we evaluate information and whether we believe something.

Professor Rainer Greifeneder and Dr. Mariela Jaffé from the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Basel want to better understand the nature of "judgments of truth" and have conducted several studies on the perception of statistical statements. This involved having study participants assess various pieces of information as true or false. The findings were recently published in the journal Social Cognition.

The power of negation

When assessing whether information is true, how a statement is worded - i.e. its "framing" - plays a key role. People are more likely to say that negative statements are true. This effect is documented in the literature as negativity bias in judgments of truth.

In their study, the researchers took this one step further and made a distinction between the concept and negation, as both can result in a statement being negative. Concepts are based on a society’s values and can be positive or negative depending on the norms. For example, satisfaction with one’s appearance is regarded as desirable and therefore positive, whereas dissatisfaction is seen as negative. Focusing on the positive or negative concept can produce a positive or negative statement, such as "39 percent of German women are satisfied with their appearance" or "61 percent are unsatisfied with their appearance". Another way to create a negative statement is to use negation. The positive statement "39 percent of German women are satisfied with their appearance" can be contrasted with the negative statement "61 percent are not satisfied with their appearance". Mariela Jaffé, co-author of the study, summarized the findings: "Our studies have shown that people are more likely to consider statements to be true when they are worded negatively." It appears to be particularly effective when a negative statement is worded with a negation - in other words, "not satisfied" versus "unsatisfied".

So what is at work here? "It may be that in the subjective perception a negated statement is associated with a greater number of situations to which it may apply. In other words, there might be more ways in which a person can be not satisfied compared with the ways in which they can be satisfied," explains Jaffé. This could explain why the negated statements seem more plausible.

To test this, participants in further studies were asked to rate whether examples of people satisfied to varying degrees matched the negative (negated) or positive statement about overall satisfaction. The results showed that examples in which the person is only partially or sometimes satisfied with their appearance were more frequently assigned to the negated statement. Of course, somewhat unsatisfied, or nearly satisfied, is still not the same as fully satisfied.

Consciously questioning negative content

The researchers still do not fully understand why the negativity bias is so pronounced. "One reason might be that we are generally more accustomed to negative news, whereas we more quickly suspect good news of manipulation," says Jaffé. In addition, negative words and information sometimes appear more explicit and may trigger greater emotion: unsatisfied versus satisfied, sick versus healthy. Negative statements tend to focus on grievances that need to be taken seriously and possibly resolved.

Basic research has also shown that negative information carries greater weight than positive information; for example, a single critical estimation gains more attention than numerous instances of positive feedback. "One explanation is that it was of evolutionary importance to pay more attention to negative information. When I hear 'fire!', if in doubt, I’m going to run - better safe than sorry," says Jaffé.

The findings from the study may help to sensitize people to factors that influence judgments of truth and the role negation plays. Jaffé believes that it is important for both the messengers of information, such as the media, and recipients to be aware of the impact of negative framing and negation, and to scrutinize their use. "And, of course, the content should be balanced and intelligible. Using negation for the purposes of manipulation would be deplorable." Jaffé recommends that people should make a deliberate effort to sometimes reformulate negative framing in a positive way, and to ask what a statement or statistical information means in terms of its converse. "We share information quickly and usually before reflection, but pausing for a moment can be very useful," she believes.

Different languages, different perceptions?

The findings raise questions for potential further research. "We conducted this study in German. It would be intriguing to see whether people judge statements differently depending on the language region," says Jaffé. The concepts depend on the norms of society and languages also function differently, including in terms of negation.

Original publication

Mariela E. Jaffé und Rainer Greifeneder Negative or negated, thus true? An investigation of concept valence and semantic negation as drivers of framing effects in judgments of truth.
Social Cognition (2021), doi: 10.1521/soco.2021.39.6.687