The psychology behind why we love to hate-read

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I just got an online subscription to the Wall Street Journal. And while I’m sure my future is going to be full of informative, incisive articles on all things finance, as a progressive gay Black man of modest means I don’t know why I’m paying to subject myself to what will surely be many opinions that I disagree with. And the WSJ is just an occasional offender; plenty of other publications I regularly read feature the most ass-backwards op-eds, as well as enraging reported pieces about acts of bigotry and injustice. And yet I still read them. What's the deal with hate-reads? Why do we love consuming content that makes us mad?

“People are strangely drawn to information they know they're going to hate, in the simplest sense, because it provides them with a sense of security and self assurance in their beliefs and actions,” Amira Johnson, an Atlanta-based therapist, tells Mic. For example, she adds, a progressive person might read a right-leaning news site to assure themselves that the content of the article — in their opinion — is wrong. “In this sense, it helps a reader self identify and feel more confident in their own political beliefs,” Johnson says, adding that this person might think that their view is superior to what they’re reading, and the people who might agree with that content. After all, it feels good to feel superior.

And then there are the type of hate reads that are published in sources you trust, but about people or concepts that make your blood boil. For instance, I have torn through several pieces about Piers Morgan’s trash opinions regarding Megan Markle. I kept on reading, growing angrier by the minute that someone like Morgan gets any air time at all. After his coworkers rushed to condemn him last week, leading to his ouster from Good Morning Britain, the internet celebrated in a pronounced moment of racial schadenfreude. It felt fulfilling to collectively hate Morgan — it reminded me that Team Good People are doing God’s work and extinguishing evildoers.

Hate-reading is also a safer and easier way to confront views that oppose your own rather than getting into a heated discussion, especially in these COVID Times where somebody’s anger spittle might infect you. “With hate reading, you're able to put your physical and emotional self at a safe distance from being challenged and rebuffed by someone else,” Johnson says. It is much easier to disagree with something that’s not going to offer a stupid rebuttal — especially if the alternative is engaging in a Twitter battle.

While hate-reading might feel good (and even be good for us, sometimes), there are risks. “Repeated exposure to any stressful stimuli is likely to release neurotransmitters in the brain, setting off a cascade,” Amanda Chase, a Maryland-based psychologist, tells Mic. She notes that hate-reading, and our brains’ response to it, may be linked to the way our ancestors scanned the environment for potential dangers. When this goes overboard, though, it can make us obsessed and paranoid, leading to a counterproductive outcome.

So if you notice me reading my WSJ day in and day out with no breaks, please stop me. Typically, the more a person engages in online surfing of things that they know are going to anger them, the greater the risk for them to develop signs and symptoms of PTSD such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, avoidance of certain people or places, emotional numbness, changes in cognition and mood, difficulty sleeping, elevated fears or anxiety, irritability, angry outbursts and self-destructive behaviors, Chase warns.

So, how can we read dissenting opinions and things we are likely to disagree with without running into these problems? It seems obvious but it bears repeating: just don’t go overboard, y’all. Chase suggests monitoring our online time and setting clear boundaries as to when and how long we are accessing news, something I’m guilty of completely ignoring even when I’m off the clock.

“It is important for us to be mindful of the emotional and behavioral loops we are entering into,” Chase says, suggesting that you ask yourself these questions: What are we tuning in to and how are we responding to the information? How does it make us feel? Do we behave differently on days where we wake up and scroll in bed? Do we sleep differently on nights when we scroll before bed? Has it resulted in any authentic or meaningful connection with people in your life? “These are important questions to begin asking,” she says.

It may sound counterintuitive, but your phone can help you set parameters on your scrolling time and help keep you accountable to yourself. Apple’s screen time setting in this case is not a grim reminder, but a helpful friend. Just remember: Keep everything in moderation, even a healthy dose of dissent.