There’s a simple reason why the dress debate and the rampaging llamas in Arizona have taken over our news feeds, our conversations and our lives this week — and it has more to do with cat videos than science. To put it simply, we’d rather debate something positive, like the dress, than ISIS and Department of Homeland Security funding.
This isn’t just speculation, it’s a fact: What the majority of us read, share and discuss is not “hard news”-oriented at all. A new study, led by applied mathematicians at the University of Vermont and Mitre Corp., analyzed the emotional content of the news we share online. And no matter the source of the news or the language, we use positive words more and overwhelmingly share positive stories over the negative news.
And, according to a study done by BuzzSumo, a content discovery and measurement software company, the emotions that make a story go “viral” are not fear and anger — they are awe, laughter and amusement.
Their analysis of 10,000 most viral articles proved this point overwhelmingly.
Another case: On Friday came news of Leonard Nimoy’s death after a long and prosperous life. Quickly, his most inspiring quotes, discussion of his influence on American culture — not to mention tributes of the Vulcan salute — began trending all over the Internet as we moved on from the dress and the llamas to bond over our shared awe and admiration of a great man.
All this doesn’t mean we’re uninterested in more intellectual topics — it simply points to a positivity bias in the stories we pay attention to most online. In addition to the internal positive boost we feel, positive stories typically help us feel connected to others. What’s more amusing than looking at a dress is debating the dress with your friends and family. And as we reflect on Nimoy’s life, we can’t help but reflect on a part of our own, growing up with the shared experience across American culture of watching “Star Trek.”
As for the dress, by the way, neuroscientists who study color have an explanation for why it appears to be blue and black to some of us, but white and gold to the rest of us. In fancy terms, it has to do with the way in which light enters your eye, the “chromatic axis” variation, thanks to daylight and the fact that different colors have different wave lengths.
There are a lot of technical terms to describe the phenomenon of the dress, but I explained it to my 9-year-old this way: When we look at the same object, our eyes and brains can make us see different things. It happens with kale — my husband and I see a delicious plate of greens; our kids see something you should feed to those llamas that ran amok this week in Sun City, Arizona. Voilà, the dress mystery has been solved.
Unfortunately, that means we can all go back to work now.