The hysteria machine
Things are just not as bad as they seem.
There. I’ve said it. Like many of you, I wake up every morning dreading what was once one of my most cherished routines — reading the newspaper. Or, in this era, reading the websites.
The news seems uniformly bad. Our President repeatedly embarrasses us while the government goes to war against unions, poor people, immigrants, minorities and women. The rich just keep getting richer while everyone else stagnates. What’s most shocking is how so many people who are hurt by what is going on in Washington have been convinced to support it. Alas, that is a topic for another day.
The talking heads and columnists play into this atmosphere of negativity. Headlines today include the following: “Do Americans know how much trouble they’re in?”, “Trump and Putin vs. America”, and “The murder-suicide of the West,” almost anything by umair haque. This is just naming a few headlines from today’s email. You can see where the drumbeat of negativity would be enough to make even the most optimistic depressed. I’m with Paul Minda — I want to bill someone for all this frustration.
But we as human beings are characterized by certain limitations, what academics call “cognitive biases.” These limitations mean that we are intrinsically incapable of seeing the big picture, that we are far more concerned with what is directly in front of us than what happened in the past, and that we are more interested in negative information than positive (known as “negativity bias”).
You can imagine how these characteristics developed through evolution. If one of our ancestors was being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger, they should not be thinking of how pretty the flowers are. Panic is what has helped our species survive.
The problem is that it becomes very hard for us to tell the difference between real danger and potential danger. Again, evolution helps explain this limitation. If we are to make a mistake, it is better to assume the worst. If we aren’t sure whether that sabre-toothed tiger is a threat, it is probably better to assume that it is dangerous rather than incorrectly assuming the opposite. Those who make the wrong judgment end up getting eaten, and their genes don’t get passed on to the next generation.
You can see evidence of these biases all around us. It is why negative political campaigning is so much more effective than positive. People are motivated by negative information, while positive information rarely led to life-or-death decisions for our forebears. As a result, these characteristics are hard-wired into us.
Unfortunately, these traits that once served to help us navigate millions of years of evolution are less suited to the modern world. Where our ancestors operated on limited information and needed to be constantly vigilant for silent predators, we are bathed in information, constantly. What’s more is that the multiple sources of information competing for our limited attention (another cognitive bias) must do something to make us even become aware of them. Knowing that people are motivated by negative information, the various content sources must continuously seek even greater outrage to simply one-up their competition.
You can see this characteristic in the weather reports. If ever there were a useless part of the news, it is the weather report. Truly, this is a problem we can do nothing about. Nevertheless, we sit on the edges of our seats as the meteorologists breathlessly, and often incorrectly, predict the next big storm. Once the big storm has failed to materialize, we breathe a sigh of relief, but tune in again when the next baseless predictions are made.
In effect, then, the modern media has become a hysteria machine. In their effort to get our attention, they must continually play to our fears. The problem is that our cognitive limitations mean we cannot sort out the real dangers from the manufactured ones.
This is where I find history instructive. I have to admit that I was a history major in college. I enjoyed it, but will be the first to admit that its uselessness in the job market led to my two rounds of graduate school. Nevertheless, history shows that our nation has faced multiple existential crises, much more serious than the one we currently face. We survived and thrived as a result of the greatest war in world history. We survived and thrived after the Civil War, a conflict that literally tore us in two. Even more recently, the 1960s were an era of upheaval that continues to mold us today. The point is that we need a sense of perspective.
None of this is to minimize the disappointment, outrage and disgust we should be feeling as a result of our current President’s behavior. It should not cause us to cease our efforts to achieve change. What it does do is help us remember that we are a great country who have survived worse. We will survive this too.