If you get your knowledge of what's happening
in the world from any form of mainstream news media, you would
probably say war and violence are increasing. And you'd probably
say it with a lot of confidence. And I'm happy to say, youd be wrong.
Youre not alone. Many leading scholars
and policymakers who should definitely know better have the same
impression. But several groups have studied it carefully and
they all come to the same conclusion: Wars have become less frequent and less violent.
The trend is strong and long-running.
One of the reasons for our mistaken impression
medias negative bias. Another reason is the simple,
unfortunate fact that a war breaking out is front page news while
a war coming to a peaceful end is not (unless it is your own
country, of course).
So when Mozambique erupts into civil war,
it is front page news around the world. If negotiators go in
and get the two sides to compromise or work out their differences,
that may be news, but it will be a relatively obscure 10th-page
item and not many will see it. It will certainly not be a lead
story on television news.
The successful resolutions of violent (or
potentially violent) situations in East Timor, Namibia, Eastern
Slovenia, etc., are almost unknown.
Yet when things go wrong, as they did in
Rwanda, for example, everybody hears about it. Violence is more
newsworthy. If it bleeds, it leads, as they say in the newspaper
business. To stay in business, they have to do what works. But
by doing so, we get a false impression of the world.
Our brains were not carefully designed.
They werent designed at all. They evolved, and are not
perfect in any sense of the word. The human brain evolved in
a world where it was obviously adaptive to respond to potentially
dangerous information with increased alertness.
During the millions of years of our evolution,
there were no advertisers or evening news programs. We evolved
no defenses against their negative influence.
So we have a built-in reaction to potential
danger and the media exploits this natural instinct.
Teams of persistent people scour the world
to find the unusual, the shocking, the scary, the things that
will compel the viewers attention and wont let them
turn away or change the channel. They gather it all up and pack
as much of it into their newspaper or television program as they
can, giving your brain and nervous system the impression that
this is happening in your world, making it seem immediate, and
making you feel more threatened and more helpless than you really
Studies have shown that most television
news leaves the viewer depressed because it is primarily bad
news the viewer can do nothing about. The problems shown on the
screen are too big or too far away or too permanent to do anything
about. This sort of news nurtures a pessimistic view of the world.
Given all this (not to mention your own brain's negative bias) you will
see a natural, gradual increase in your own pessimism unless
you deliberately do something to prevent it. What can you do?
You can protect yourself. Here's how: Stop Being Pessimistic.
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