Can you notice how much good is routinely happening in the world? Or, does a daily concentrated shot of pandemonium – courtesy of the media/internet – eclipse it all? The internet and news are our primary sense organ for understanding the current world. How reliable is this? Have you ever wondered how consuming media – any media – might wildly amplify distress, minimize good fortune, and consequently, perpetuate background anxiety about day-to-day life? Our collective media bias toward “bad news” has been scientifically established since the 1980s. Unfortunately, establishing this bias didn’t make the problem go away – nor magically inoculate us from its effects. So, 40 years later, here we are.
“Many people face the news each morning with trepidation and dread. Every day, we read of shootings, inequality, pollution, dictatorship, war and the spread of nuclear weapons. These are some of the reasons that [this year] is the ‘Worst. Year. Ever.’ Until the [following year] claims the record. But is this a sensible way to understand the human condition? As Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out, ‘Nothing is more responsible for the ‘good old days’ than a bad memory.’”
– Steven Pinker
Ignore or Engage?
As much as I embrace distance from the world – turning within for calmness and gratitude, I cherish time with other minds. As astounding as inner exploration and solitude can be, what comes from others… in words, art, music, in simply being together – is so fundamentally invigorating. Sharing sustains us. Culture literally makes us. Even Henry David Thoreau had to share after 2 years of solitude at Walden.
The dilemma, then, is how to balance being peacefully distant yet still remaining in touch. How to engage with “media” and not feel mentally polluted and warped by its intractable bias, while also not outright ignoring or denying what it shows us.
The Changing Mental Tides: Ease vs. Stress
A personal anecdote – how it feels like to slosh around between good and bad:
The scene of a jazz show last night: three humans on stage, world class rising talent on piano, bass, drums, for one hour, took 50 or so people to another planet for a little while. Pure expression… from the deepest fathomable place of human creativity. No hostility no ugliness — pure celebration of being alive and accessing some deep source of expression that we all have inside. Prior to the show, I wandered through a city of thousands of people around sunset. The weather was perfect, people were ending their day… settling into the cool 70 degree summer night. As I type this now, still reflecting on the show, the earth has spun and the sunrise now hits my fingers and screen.
10 minutes ago, when I flicked my mouse and woke-up my twitter screen, the first thing I saw was a 3 year old taking swings at a police officer on the street. A tiny little human inexplicably saturated with rage — that some adult invariably modeled for him. Thousands of likes and comments accumulating faster than anyone can keep-up with, containing various “explanations” for what was happening with accompanying corrective societal prescriptions. This could springboard into a reflection about how hate/greed/fear perpetuates itself… but – that is not the point of writing this. The following is stupidly obvious, yet it bears repeating a million times:
The media is biased toward things that dominate us, psychologically.
I realized that in a matter of 30 seconds, the warm momentum from the previous night’s experience had been totally erased.
Most of the content we see will make us fearful, upset, angry. A sad reality of human nature is that, for good reason (our survival), our minds are optimized to fixate on threats so that we might avoid them. Yet these primal circuits were not optimized for a world where billions of people share their threat-du-jour. If only .0001% of the events we encounter on a daily basis are catastrophe, then the odds are spectacular we will miss the other 99.999% of good stuff that flies by. The world feels like hell when, relatively speaking, it’s not.
“I can’t stand the news. Why? Personally, I find the news depressing: (1) It often seems that there’s more bad news than good, and (2) data, figures, and other information are often misrepresented, either as a result of bias or by trying to explain things so simply that they wind up getting misinterpreted during this ‘translation.’
A reason I find the news depressing is the way it’s often reported, with information being misrepresented or cherry-picked—be it for the purposes of enhancing the sensationalism of their headlines, bias, or even trying to simplify complex topics to such a degree that they wind up getting misinterpreted. This is a genuine problem.”
– Why Is the News Depressing?
Dr. Christopher Dwyer, Psychology Today
“When certain politicians are passing draconian laws across America and anti gay politicians doing that in Florida. I find it hard not to be disturbed by all this. I’m not sure how to mix meditation into all the shit going on currently. I also wouldn’t want to be content with this stuff. In fact I’m even considering saving up for a while in case it ever got too bad here. How do you come to terms with the shit going on in the world while also somehow reaching a more meditative way of being?”
The first quote (and article), is written by Christopher Dwyer, PhD in Psychology, and links to additional research by other scientists beginning in the 1980s through current day. This further substantiates a bias toward the negative in media, and the correlated emotional affect:
“Even though news facts can have positive, neutral, or negative content, the majority of news coverage concerns topics with a negative valence. Not only are the majority of news topics negative, people also tend to pay more attention to negative news. In addition, the majority of negative news coverage is directed towards people’s emotions, and the sensationalism and confronting nature of news coverage have increased drastically over the last decades.
Negative news perception is related to more negative affect and less positive affect, and these effects are moderated by personal relevance. Thus, daily exposure to everyday news facts makes people feel bad, especially when they consider the news to be personally relevant. These results implicate we need to look more carefully at the way (negative) news is presented in the media, as well as the frequency of exposure to the news, in order to prevent people from being negatively affected by it.”
What to Do?
Disconnect yourself. Even if only for a week, or two. Don’t read the news. Don’t go on the internet. Shut off notifications. Find a good book, make some meals for yourself, walk outside, just be. Rediscover a new psychological baseline.
Ok fine — but then what? Inevitably we all need to know what’s going on out there, right?
Well that is the hard hard game we all must play. There is no choice.
First we must never forget the bias that lives in all of us, and how that bias is exacerbated further in a world that has become surgically efficient at finding and amplifying terrible or vapid things. We must see this absurd situation with crystal clarity.
Second, through that lens, we must then consume, very very carefully.
Just as most of us would not chronically rip down spoonfuls from a bag of sugar, why would we willingly do the same our minds? The truth is that this psychological obesity is hard to see — almost totally invisible — unless we are fortunate enough to step away, and remember what a healthy baseline feels like.
Ignorance Is Bliss?
No. This is not about denying bad things, or being oblivious to news, or being oblivious to privilege or comfort. However, the urge to be informed should NOT compel anyone into a compulsive diet of media that makes them angry or anxious or fearful or worried for the majority of your life. Sadly, we rarely take a break. Breaks are harder to find today. We are sponges that are FULLY wet with information that is bombarding us in every direction. And the stuff we are wet with, generally, stinks.
This article is no silver bullet. This article is merely a reminder, that our minds are little gardens that are easily contaminated. And so we must be very careful what passes through the garden doors on a daily basis.
And yes — we can blame media — we can insist “media” is the cause of many ills, and we can raise our pitchforks and demand they change. But we cannot neglect protecting our own minds first, and unfortunately, we need to admit that human nature will always provide an audience for junk. The changes of media-at-large making a massive course correction are infinitesimally small.
So much of the world is good. Please try not to hyper-focus on hyperbole – or at least understand that it is often just that – hyperbole. Engage with wisdom and contribute the quiet majority of the global population that just wants to simply be alive and be easy.