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.
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 in.
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.
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…When 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.
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 the film.
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 happens next.
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.
Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.