A terrifying jihadist group is conquering and butchering its way across big swaths of Iraq and Syria. Planes are falling out of the sky on what seems like a weekly basis. Civilians are being killed in massive numbers in the Israel-Gaza conflict. Others are falling prey to Ebola in West Africa. The world, in short, is falling apart.
That’s how it feels, at least, to those of us who sit at a blessed remove from the death and destruction, but who are watching every bloody moment of it via cable news and social media. It raises an important question: In an age when we can mainline bad news 24/7 if we so choose, what’s the psychological impact of all this exposure to tragedy at a distance?
Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor at the University of Texas–San Antonio and leading researcher on the connection between media consumption and stress, said the current trend of breathless, protracted coverage of tragedy and calamity can be traced back to the Oklahoma City bombings. “That was really the first event where it really went viral, just 24 hours of news coverage, and that’s really become the norm,” she said.
Almost two decades later, news outlets — facing pressure from an endlessly multiplying array of competitors all zeroing in on the same stories — have greater incentive than ever before to ramp up their coverage of scary, emotionally wrenching stories. The outlets all feel “they have to be sensational, they have to grab your attention,” said McNaughton-Cassill. It can be hard, sometimes, not to see media coverage as an “unrelenting flow” of negativity, especially when it’s so loudly amplified by social media. (In a related video, Science of Us asked visitors to the High Line what stories they were most freaked out about, and how they coped with negative-information overload.)
Before getting into the effects of all this, it’s important to state what a steady diet of bad news won’t do. It won’t give you PTSD, anxiety, or depression if you weren’t predisposed toward those conditions, McNaughton-Cassill said. Causation is tricky here: It may simply be that depressed or anxious people are more likely to seek out bad news, and bad news could in turn worsen the effects of these conditions in certain ways.
But those of us without mental illness could be affected in different, subtler ways that could have a major long-term impact. “When I’ve done studies and people watch coverage of, say, 9/11, they don’t then meet criteria for depression in the DSM,” she said. “But if you ask them how they feel about the world, what they end up with is this malaise: ‘Everything’s kinda bad’ and ‘Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help’ and ‘I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.’”
In addition to a burgeoning sense of helplessness, she said, cognitive shortcuts triggered by the news can also lead us to gradually see the world as a darker and darker place, chipping away at certain optimistic tendencies. McNaughton-Cassill’s research suggests that that all things being equal, if you ask people, regardless of their circumstances, to evaluate what’s going around them — Do they think their neighbors are good people? Do they think the local schools are solid? — “People always say yes in their immediate setting.”
Zoom out a little, though, and people have less to go on. The average San Antonian doesn’t know much about what’s going on in New York (and vice versa), let alone the Middle East, and therefore has to rely on shortcuts: What did I see on the news most recently? What’s the general impression I get when I turn on CNN? “As soon as you get out of your zone, most of your information’s from the news,” McNaughton-Cassill said, “and the news by definition covers the extreme things.”
The consequences of this are one thing if you live in an age in which, once or twice an evening, you’ll see a short, bloody dispatch from a war going on across the world. They’re quite another today, when you can have news of every civilian death in Gaza or every Islamic State military advance streamed to you in real time. People could be forgiven for adopting a hell-in-a-handbasket stance toward the rest of the world.
That’s a problem, because when people are led to believe things are falling apart, it affects their decision-making and their politics — whether or not their pessimism is warranted. We already know from political-psychological research that the more threatened people feel, the more likely they will be to support right-wing policies. And people who believe in the concept of unmitigated evil appear more likely to support torture and other violent policies.
It’s hard to fully sketch out these mechanisms, of course. Could years and years of exposure to negative news heighten your belief in a Manichean world and in turn make you more reactionary? It’s an open question. But history — even recent history — is rife with examples of society making bad choices because of pessimistic hysteria. One can make a convincing case that belief in the now-debunked notion of “superpredators” contributed to the rise of draconian sentencing laws, for example, or that the recent spate of parents being arrested for letting their children play unsupervised stems from the false but persistent idea, blown up by coverage of high-profile kidnapping cases, that the world is crawling with kid-snatching strangers. And then there’s the example that probably screams loudest in the liberal imagination: George W. Bush drummed up support for the war in Iraq, which at the time of the U.S. invasion sat at 75 percent, by painting a world in which Al Qaeda and its radical affiliates posed an existential threat to the Western world.
So when people overestimate the world’s awfulness, there do appear to be real consequences. And while, as has eternally been the case, there are certainly pockets of the planet that really are getting worse on a daily basis (Syria), on a broader level there’s solid evidence — perhaps gathered most comprehensively by Steven Pinker — that the world is in the midst of a decades-long trend of actually becoming better: safer and healthier and more humane. We just have the bad stuff shouted into our ears louder than ever before.
How can we fight back against the unnecessary coarsening of our outlook that may be occurring every time we glance at one of our gadgets? The simplest technique is, as McNaughton-Cassill put it, to “Just turn it off.” That is, take a break from the news. Switch off CNN and shut down TweetDeck for awhile and don’t sleep next to your phone.
This sort of advice isn’t realistic for everyone, though, so she had other suggestions as well. “What I tell people is that you really have to get conscious,” she said. That is, stop consuming news like a hungry teenager wolfs down a Pop-Tart — rather, seek out a bit of context and a bit of understanding as to why certain pieces of information affect you in certain ways.
“You can’t change the externals,” she said. “You have to get some control mentally.” What’s most important is “getting a handle on why you get anxious and worried about things that probably aren’t going to happen, or knowing what your triggers are.” The more you understand your own reaction to the news, the easier it will be to shape your news-consumption habits in an adaptive way.
It’s also useful to see the bigger pictures, of course. “Consciously focus yourself on the evidence around you that the news is picking out the extremes and the bad things,” McNaughton-Cassill said. In other words, understand that you’re seeing a lot of bad news not because the world is an inherently evil place, but because news outlets — not to mention individual Twitter and Facebook users — have lots of incentives to broadcast explosively negative news stories.
Overall, of course, it’s both unrealistic and undesirable to construct bubbles that keep out the world’s bad news. But there’s a difference between being informed and being obsessive, and it’s a line that’s very easy to accidentally slide across in an age when there’s so much scary information zipping around.