political psychology

Why We Hate-Read

Photo: Wavebreak Media Ltd/Corbis

If your goal right now is to find something that will make your blood boil, that will really piss you off, you’re in luck: The internet has you covered. 

Popular websites on both the left and the right exist solely to help rile up their readers over the other side’s wrongness. Political journalists retweet idiotic opinions so their followers can laugh at them. Clips of ignorant speeches and embarrassing TV appearances rocket across the opposition’s blogosphere.

Underlying all this is a weirdly common human tendency toward “hate-reading.” Call it that for short, at least, because it also includes “hate-listening” and “hate-watching.” In short, many people seem strangely drawn to material that they know, even before they’re exposed to it, will infuriate them. And hate-reading in its purest form involves not just seeking out the aggregated fodder of Media Matters or Newsbusters, but actually going straight to the source: a conservative mainlining Keith Olbermann; a liberal recklessly exposing herself to a Rush Limbaugh monologue.

A lot of us do this, but why? No one knows for sure, but there are a few potential explanations. One is that hate-reading simply makes us feel good by offering up an endless succession of “the emperor has no clothes” moments with regard to our political adversaries. In this view, we specifically seek out the anti-wisdom of whoever appears dumbest and most hateful as a means of bolstering our own sense of righteousness. “If the commentary is dumb enough, it may actually have a boomerang effect in that it reassures us that our opponents aren’t very smart or accurate,” said Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a media psychologist at the University of Texas San Antonio.

Sarah Sobieraj, who co-wrote a book on so-called outrage media — that is, exactly the sort of angry, polemical material that is so often the focus of hate-reading — called The Outrage Industry, suggested that hate-reading might offer up some of the benefits of political discussion without the drawbacks.

It’s definitely a safer way to encounter ideas you disagree with politically than talking with people you disagree with,” she said, “which is something we know that in the United States we avoid at nearly all cost. People don’t like to talk about politics with people they disagree with.” That’s something her research has shown pretty consistently: For all the loudness of our discourse, for all the talk about debate and discussion (albeit of a less inclusive sort than we, the loudest, would like to think), many Americans simply don’t want to actually talk politics with those with whom they disagree, partially out of a fear of being made to look uninformed. So for those who aren’t mouthy, opinionated pundits, hate-reading allows for a useful sort of half-engagement: You can yell back at the radio, but the radio can’t hear you.

Hate-reading, in Sobieraj’s view, is also part of a larger system that helps sustain political movements. “The opposition is central to how activism itself works,” she said. “So in the case of the left and the right, they would have a hard time existing without the other. So the left needs to find that next unacceptable speech so they can respond to it. And the right needs to find the unacceptable speech, they have to go searching [for] it — the [outrage industry] itself is absolutely dependent on finding people with whom to disagree. So you need that opposition.”

So it’s not just that some liberals slum it by tuning into Limbaugh. He is, in a certain real sense, for liberals. His demagoguery doesn’t just help reassure conservatives that they’re correct — it reassures liberals, too, and in some cases can even lead to increased fund-raising and activism when he says something particularly toxic. Same goes for Olbermann (not that there is perfect equivalence between the two).

Hate-reading can become something of an addiction. The father of my friend Molly from high school, for example, used to be hooked on Jay Severin, a noxious Boston-based radio personality  who once said that in his world, “the poor and stupid would starve” (he was eventually fired from the mainstream airwaves and then picked up by Glenn Beck’s media network).

He listened to him for years while working as a carpenter,” Molly told me in a text message. “We are talking serious hours. He disagreed with all the opinions but kept getting angry. One year for Christmas I asked him to stop listening for a week as a present to me.” (The wish, alas, was not granted.)

In fact, I used to do the same thing whenever I had a long solo drive, particularly the rather featureless 12-hour one between my college town of Ann Arbor and my hometown outside Boston: I’d seek out the most virulent right-wing talk-show host I could find — usually Mark Levin or Michael Savage — and listen, hands often digging into my steering wheel with rage, as I traversed I-80 and I-90.

What would compel Molly’s dad, who could conceivably listen to anything he wanted to help make his workday more pleasant, to choose to listen to such a hateful ogre? And why did I put up with Levin’s shrilly unpleasant voice for hours a time when I had a fully functional iPod lying on the driver’s seat next to me?

Evidence from brain science — albeit evidence of an early, circumstantial variety — can offer the outlines of an answer. Take a 2008 PLOS ONE study led by the brain researchers Semir Zeki and John Paul Romaya, in which they tried to better understand the neural underpinnings of hate by scanning the brains of subjects while they viewed the faces of their enemies (one of the subjects, tellingly, chose a political figure rather than a personal enemy). They were surprised by one of their findings. “[M]ost intriguingly,” they wrote, “the network [associated with hate] involves regions of the putamen and the insula that are almost identical to the ones activated by passionate, romantic, love.”

There’s always a risk of overextrapolating from brain-scan studies; Zeki and Romaya’s results don’t mean that hate is basically just the same thing as love, oriented in the opposite direction — it doesn’t “prove” any cliches about thin lines. But, speaking as a (mostly) former hate-reader, the connection to passion rings true. When I was in the car for those endless hours, in need of a distraction, Savage and Levin narrowed the universe for me; they made things simple. The world is full of hateful, awful people who are truly dangerous, I thought as I listened to them, and those of us who are informed have to help combat their terrible ideas.

What I felt was indeed a version of passion. Passion usefully turns off our tendency to overanalyze, to get lost in our own head — who wants to get lost in their own head on a half-day car ride? When you expose yourself to ideas you find truly retched, the resultant feeling isn’t just anger — it’s a passionate, self-righteous glow that you (and not they) know what’s right. Even as I was infuriated by what I heard on the radio, there was more than a tinge of pleasure to the sensation.

So it’s easy to see how this constant cycle of outrage/self-righteousness could be addictive. But is it actually making us any smarter or better? In the same way social-media fasts are en vogue, it might be time to experiment with some time off from hate-reading. Rush will still be there when you get back.

Lori Keong contributed research.