BREAKING NEWS (NOT): It’s hard to watch the news without getting frustrated, afraid, or angry. This only gets worse once you decide to Go NoCo and you become extra-sensitive to things that trigger negative feelings. But you don’t have to get stuck in a choice between staying informed and keeping your cool. You can do both at the same time if you understand what triggers and reinforces a negative frame of mind.
Our brains are wired to be alert for danger — it’s how we’ve evolved to survive — so we respond to it more quickly than anything else. Knowing this, the media responds to our response by giving us what draws us in. News tends to be negative. Incidents which inspire fear are more likely to get coverage than those which inspire hope. Pundits, reporters, and politicians spin to the negative.
We all know this. Problem is, it’s not true.
Data-driven studies have shown there’s more positive reporting than negative — just not on the front page, or on posts that get spread like wildfire on social media. So even what we “know” about news being negative is skewed in our memory. Why? How does this happen?
You probably already know that your sense that something is “common” or “usual” is affected by how familiar it is, and whatever you put your attention on is what you see. This means if you look for something and you see it because you’re looking for it, you’re more likely to think it’s everywhere because you recognize it easily. On a related note, you’re also more likely to remember things that are similar to what you’re currently thinking about, making them seem even more ever-present.
What you may not know is that our attention can get so laser-focused that we entirely miss other things that are there, things that are different yet obvious if we were looking for them, but invisible if we’re looking for something else.
This was illuminated by an innovative study on the power of selective attention by cognitive psychologists Simons and Chabris. They asked subjects to watch a video of people passing a basketball and count the number of times the people wearing white passed the ball, but ignore the passes by people wearing black. [Spoilers ahead, so if you want to test yourself before continuing to read: watch the video on YouTube.]
Partway into the video, a gorilla walks through the scene. When asked about the gorilla, fully half of the study subjects said they hadn’t seen it. In fact they flat out refused to believe that it was there. Simons and Chabris concluded that focusing on something (e.g., counting basketball passes) caused “inattentional blindness” (aka “perceptual blindness”), a limit on the ability to see anything other than the task at hand.
This study has been replicated in different forms many times and the results are consistent. Our brain filters our experiences and when we’re focused we miss a lot of what’s happening around us.
Filtering for the Negative
If you’re in the habit of complaining, you’re more likely to look for (and therefore see) things going wrong. Good things could be happening, but you might not recognize them even if they’re right in front of you. Add to this the fact that when recalling a memory our brains are more likely to choose a well-worn path than forge a new one, and you get a situation where when you have a negative mindset you’re likely to see and remember negative things and the more you think about them the easier they will be to remember. Not only that, memories with stronger emotions attached become more vivid and alive, particularly if those emotions are fear or anger. (I wrote about this more in-depth here.)
Do you see where this is going? Paying attention to negative things that evoke strong emotions (e.g., front page news) make those things dominant in your perception and your memory, which then makes you pay more attention to them so you see more negative things, crowding out anything positive, thus making you think the world is all negative because that’s all you see.
But it’s not true that the world is all awful all the time. The truth is that at every moment bad things are happening, yes, and good things are also happening. Every minute, every day. The world is complex. We can choose to see that complexity or deny it.
What you perceive and how you feel depends on where you place your focus. And that is true about more than the news, but it’s certainly applicable there.
How to Read the News
Each of us can affect our perception of the world through conscious choices about what and how we choose to take in information. This might sound like a recommendation to put on rose-colored glasses, but it’s not. It’s a recognition that we are always looking through the world through filters, whether they’re the color of rose or soot or plaid, and that we need to understand those filters have an effect on what we perceive as “true” or “real.” Recognizing this enables you to make choices around it.
To keep my mood steady and still stay informed, I make different choices about the form of reporting for things I can predict will upset me or make me happy.
For negative or upsetting news stories, I prefer to read analysis. I resist front-page and bite-sized news stories because those are often written to evoke emotions and I know how much that will stay with me, (dis-)coloring my perceptions of everything around me.
Then I seek out positive or neutral stories that are presented emotionally. For me this means looking for thoughtful or artistic videos, personal essays, and reports of scientific breakthroughs.
When I’m feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable (e.g., I’m in personal crisis, stressed, or simply tired) I try to avoid the front page altogether, including news sites and Facebook re-posts. I choose instead to do things that nourish me like listen to music or read fiction.
As a rule, I avoid the news first thing in the morning. Definitely not before coffee.
Another technique is to expand my viewpoint by cultivating an “open awareness” of the world. This means staying with things longer, noticing ever-more details and nuances. You can practice by looking at something for a long time and inviting your mind to stay open to discovering new things about it. This is a classic mindfulness technique. The more you practice this, the more easily you can extend an open awareness out to people and events around you.
Lastly, my favorite method is to cultivate curiosity. With every piece of information, with every experience, I try to remember to ask questions such as: Is this true? What else is also true? What else could this mean? If I were [a different person] how would I perceive this? How could I respond to this? How else could I respond to this?
When you consciously choose to experiment with different perspectives your focus widens in a way that isn’t hazy. You become able to hold paradoxes and complexity in your mind. This is key to creativity, problem solving, and empathy. You’ll start to see more of the world, and you won’t miss a moonwalking gorilla.
Further reading: The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us