Junk Food For The Mind: The Dangers of Media Overdose

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We consume too much news. Too much of it is junk.

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting our lives across the board. In my clinical practice, I see the many ways clients are dealing with pandemic-related stress, uncertainty, anxiety, and loss. The stories vary, but a commonly reoccurring theme has to do with consuming the news. Many people are spending much time searching for and absorbing virus-related media stories. Their motivation is usually self-protective. They wish to be well informed in order to be well prepared. Yet quite consistently, my clients report that the effects of their intense news consumption are paradoxical: The more they consume, the more anxious they become.

Why would that be? Part of the answer relates to what is known in medicine as a dose-response effect. Consider your medicine cabinet. Most of the substances in there are helpful, but only if dosed correctly. Too little will provide no relief. Too much will cause harm. The news is to the mind what medicine is to the body. Too little leaves us vulnerable due to ignorance. Too much may overwhelm us into paralysis, anxiety, and confusion.

But, you may ask, how can too much news harm us? After all, if news is knowledge, and if knowledge is power, then how can too much news be disempowering? To understand why over-dosing on the news is harmful, we must first understand signal detection theory, which concerns our ability to detect signals in a less-than-perfect “noisy” (that is, real-world) environment. The attempt to discern signal from noise (i.e., truth from untruth) in such an environment is vulnerable to two types of errors: a false alarm (we detect something that isn’t there) or a miss (something is there that we fail to detect).

By definition, a detection system that favors avoiding misses will incur many false alarms, and vice versa. In the dangerous environs of our ancestors, missing a threat was much costlier than a false alarm. Natural selection, therefore, shaped our sensory system toward avoiding misses. Thus, our brain is attracted to trouble—the so-called negativity bias.

Second, we must recognize that the news in America is by and large a for-profit business. It generates profits by getting eyeballs on the news product. In other words, it needs to attract consumers’ attention. And you already know what attracts our attention: that’s right—mayhem. The news, therefore, will prioritize mayhem, exploiting our brain’s innate tendencies. If it bleeds, it leads. Airplane crashes will always make the news. Airplanes landing safely will not. Consuming the news, hence, is not merely acquiring knowledge. It is acquiring a certain type of knowledge, heavily tilted towards brokenness.

Consuming this type of knowledge further skews our worldview by triggering a fundamental cognitive bias called the availability heuristic—our tendency to assume that things we hear a lot about are common. Hearing a lot about negative events leads us to believe that negative events are common, even when they are not. This means that when we overdose on coronavirus news, what we’re getting is not further education on coronavirus, but rather a sort of coronavirus propaganda, according to which the virus is poised to destroy us all, inevitably, imminently, thoroughly, and permanently. That terrifying picture compels our attention further, and the vicious cycle is created. Thus over-consumed, the news, which is supposed to help our understanding and our coping, in effect undermines both. SOURCE

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On August 9, 2020

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