I've been in many debates about the virtues
of "knowing what's going on in the world." It's a common
belief that keeping up with the news is important.
If you have that belief, I invite you to
really examine its merit. I think you'll find it comes up short.
The belief itself is probably another fear-tactic used by the
news media. It is in their interest, of course, to make us all
believe something bad will happen to us if we don't know what's
going on in the world.
But I haven't read a newspaper or watched
television news or listened to it on the radio for about eighteen
years now, except for very few times, and nothing bad has happened
to me. And something good has happened: I have saved myself from
being steeped in a worldview that makes the world a scarier,
more dangerous place than it really is. (Read more about that here.)
Keeping abreast of current events gives
workmates something to talk about besides the weather, but that's
not much of a benefit, considering the cost of living your life
in a frightening world, which seems to be the end-product of
years of "keeping up on the news." People who regularly
watch the news have a world view that would never have formed
if the only thing they dealt with was the real world they live
A survey by the Harvard School of Public
Health found that although a person's risk of getting seriously
injured in a car accident is only about five percent, most people
believed it was more like fifty percent. Men thought they had
a one in three chance of getting prostrate cancer, but it is
actually more like one in ten. Women thought they had a forty
percent chance of getting breast cancer when actually it's more
like ten percent. And for diabetes, HIV and strokes, most people
thought they had twice the chance as they actually do.
Where do you think we get these worries?
Do we make them up because we're all worryworts? Not likely.
Newscasters have a choice: Scare the bejeezus out of us, or go
out of business. (Read more about the media's negative bias here.)
the safe route
In a brilliant article called The Rout of Doubt, Jacob Weisberg criticized
the pessimists in the media and pointed out that there is a "built-in
media bias toward pessimism." Defeatism gets better ratings
than confidence. The cards are stacked in favor of pessimism.
As Weisberg points out, if a pessimistic commentator later turns
to be right, he looks great. If things turn out better than the
commentator predicted, he only looks cautious. Looking cautious
is not a bad thing for a commentator.
On the other hand, if he speaks positively
and confidently and turns out to be wrong, he looks naive, foolish,
and unsophisticated. And it is much better for a commentator
to look careful than to look naive. The result is an automatic
pessimistic stance on everything. It's the safest thing to do.
The problem is, of course, that this pessimistic
point of view is being broadcast far and wide, influencing people,
infecting minds with pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism, undermining
the viewers' determination, weakening their ability to achieve
their goals, ruining the viewers' moods, impairing their health.
Have I overstated my case? Look at the facts in Pessimism and Health before you pass judgment.
I may actually be understating my case.
Norman Schwarzkopf, the general in charge
of operations in the first Gulf War, deliberately underestimated
the damage they were doing to Iraq's military during the war.
I remember being surprised when the war suddenly ended and surprised
at how thoroughly Iraq's army had been destroyed. "We're
trying to be deliberately conservative," said Schwarzkopf
at the time. "We don't want to mislead anybody. We don't
want to tell you we've done something we haven't done
we announce something to you that something's happened, you can
take it to the bank."
All good intentions. And you can see how
these good intentions can lead to a continuous representation
of the world as worse than it really is. It is easy to see why
so many people seem to be so pessimistic and cynical.
The good news is that once you know how
it operates, you become somewhat immune to its influence, rather
like being familiar with a sales technique makes you immune to
its influence. And also, now that you know this, you will probably
become more selective about how you take in your news, which
you can read more about here: Become
sitting like a slug
Another aspect of television is how passive
it is. This is more important than you might realize. In an experiment,
researchers gave volunteers two short stressful experiences.
One was a twelve-minute memory test. The other was a twelve-minute
video showing awful, ghastly, disgusting surgical procedures.
The researchers measured the immunoglobulin A in the volunteers' saliva.
Immunoglobulin A is a protein the body
uses as a first line of defense against invaders. It shows up
in saliva and on the wet surface of the lungs. It prevents microbes
from invading the body. It is an easy-to-measure indicator of
how well a person's immune system is working.
The researchers found that the stress of
the memory task increased the amount of immunoglobulin A the
body produced. But the gruesome video decreased it. The immune
cells produced less of this vital immune defense when watching
Both tasks were stressful. The study was
trying to look at two different kinds of stress: passive and
active. What they found was that passively enduring something
stressful is bad for the immune system. Although the memory task
was stressful (because of difficulty and time pressure), it was
active. The person was doing something about it. But they could
do nothing about what they saw in the video.
This is one of the dangerous things about
television news. Sometimes terrible things happen. The newspeople
bring it to you dramatically. It's hard to turn away. They deliberately
make it as compelling as possible. But like a fish dangling on
the end of a spear, you're stuck there almost against your will,
suffering, and being stressed by something you can do nothing
about. It's bad for your health. It allows the "lampreys of the mind" to invade in force.
In the 1970s a small American town in the
mountains had no television. They were studied before and after
the arrival of cable television. After they had television, children
and adults slowly became less persistent and less creative when
solving problems. The nature of the medium keeps you passive.
In 1992 and again in 1999, Gallup polls
showed that forty percent of adults and seventy percent of teenagers
felt they watched more television than they wanted to. I know
that isn't surprising, but think about it. Isn't that strange?
I mean, it's pretty easy to turn off a television set. Just push
a small button. Physically, it's about as easy as a task can
be. But psychologically, television programmers try to make it
as hard as possible to turn it off or change the channel.
One intriguing theory that explains the
compelling nature of TV watching is that television producers
and editors are exploiting our "orienting response."
Ivan Pavlov first described the orienting response back in the
early 1920s. When we see or hear something new, and it occurs
suddenly, our brains and bodies go through a sequence of reactions.
Alpha brain waves are blocked for a few seconds. The heart slows
down and blood vessels to the big muscle groups constrict while
blood vessels in the brain dilate.
It appears to be a reaction designed to
stop the body and perk up attention. That makes sense. We've
all seen animals do this. They hear a twig snap in the forest
and what do they do? They freeze and pay close attention to what
Television producers are trying to arrest
your attention, so they use fast edits, constant movement, and
novel, surprising sights and sounds to keep you in a constant
state of "orienting." Your body feels paralyzed, but
you're highly focused.
And because the competition for your attention
is so intense, they keep getting better and better at irresistibly
forcing your attention on their program or advertisement. Cameramen
used to hold the camera steady. Now even the camera is constantly
moving. It keeps you in the orienting response; fixated; mesmerized,
and (if you're watching a typical news program) inflowing an
impression of the world that cultivates pessimism, cynicism,
and defeatism. (Read
more about that here.)
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