News is easier to consume than ever before. It is beautifully curated in our smartphone apps, social media accounts, and television channels, and it is continuously optimized to make it increasingly irresistible. The more terrifying, enraging, and shocking the headline, the more likely we are to click and read more.
The advantages of up-to-date information about global events are obvious. When we know what’s going on at home and around the world, we’re better informed in our travel plans, living plans, and our political decision-making. But the ease of access to information also comes with a curse. Sometimes, information is actively harmful for our wellbeing, and I don’t just mean biased information or fake content. Even factual descriptions of an event can adjust our psychology in dysfunctional directions that reduce the quality of our decision-making.
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In new work published in February 2019, a group of European researchers compared the psychological effects of threats experienced directly, to threats that we learn about second-hand. They designed a simple experiment in which participants saw either a blue or a yellow block on a computer screen, one of which was accompanied by a painful electric shock. However, participants learned about the electric shock in one of three different ways depending on their randomly assigned group. Group 1 received the shock themselves, group 2 observed another participant on a computer screen receiving the shock, and group 3 were simply told that one of the blocks was linked to an electric shock but never received the shock themselves. The participants ran through many repetitions of these blue and yellow blocks in this initial phase of the experiment — let’s call it the “conditioning phase”. They were being conditioned to respond to each block with either a threat response — electric shock incoming! — or a neutral response.
In a sense, groups 2 and 3 learned about the electric shocks the way we normally learn about dramatic events in the news: we either see video footage of people suffering through natural disasters and wars, or we are told how those traumatic events are unfolding. Group 1 experienced the drama for themselves, so they would typically be the subjects of a news broadcast.
The researchers wanted to see how these different experiences would change people’s threat-related decision-making. So after this initial conditioning phase of the experiment, all participants completed a second task in which they actively chose between a blue and yellow block 70 times. One of the blocks had a 75% chance of shocking the participants (let’s call this the “dangerous block”), while the other had only a 25% chance of shocking them, but participants had no awareness of these probabilities. The dangerous block could be the same block they were conditioned to, or it could be the opposite color block; they simply had to learn through trial and error.
This decision-making task was split into two halves. For some participants, the dangerous block in the first half was the same dangerous block that they learned about during their conditioning phase. Then in the second half, the dangerous block reversed to the opposing color, just to make things extra difficult for the participant. For other participants, the reversed colors applied in the first half of their decision-making task, while the originally conditioned colors appeared during the second half of the task. So for each of the three groups, some participants made decisions about their conditioned colors followed by decisions about the reversed colors. And the rest of the participants made decisions about the reversed colors followed by decisions about their conditioned colors (although the conditioning itself probably wore off by then).
So how did each of the participant groups react in their decision-making? Group 1 participants, who were conditioned directly with electric shocks, showed a specific pattern of responses depending on which half of the decision-making task they engaged with. In the first half, the participants who received a shock from the same color to which they were conditioned made significantly better decisions than participants who were shocked by the opposite color. In essence, they were biased toward applying the same rule they were conditioned too, so it allowed them to learn more quickly. They made fewer mistakes and did better in choosing the color least likely to shock them.
However, after the reversal in the second half of decision-making, those participants actually performed worse than participants who initially had to work against their conditioning. The participants who had to flip-flop most frequently didn’t have to override such a strong association built in their brains through repetition, so they learned more effectively after the final rule reversal. The participants who built a strong association, through conditioning and then compatible early decision-making, struggled to switch their behavior when required.
Most surprisingly, participants in groups 2 and 3, who were conditioned to electric shocks through observation or purely spoken instruction, all showed precisely the same decision-making outcomes as participants in group 1 who were conditioned by receiving shocks to their own body. Although the underlying brain mechanisms that influenced the decisions for each group may have been different, they pushed participants into the same eventual response patterns.
Why is this so interesting? Because in conventional thinking, when we receive information purely through spoken language, we should not expect to develop a strong conditioned response. We are building a conscious model about how the world works, rather than developing an automatic Pavlovian reaction to rules that we directly experience in the environment. But somehow, participants adjusted their decision-making to spoken instructions in the same way that they adjusted their decision-making to immediate direct electric shocks. Under the late rule reversal that changed which color caused shocks, participants struggled to force their mind out of habitual and persistent responses, even though they were never directly conditioned into those responses through electric shocks, but rather simply taught through spoken instruction.
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These results may be an important lesson in the effects of our typical news consumption. The more we check our news feeds, the more aware we are of important events around the world. But at the same time, we also open ourselves up to attention-grabbing headlines and drama, which occupy limited space in our conscious mind. We live vicariously through the news: the more horror and trauma we read about, the less happy and motivated we feel in our everyday life. And the more we learn about the vicarious mechanics of our mind, the more we realize that second-hand traumatic news can have strikingly similar effects to first-hand traumatic experiences.
All-or-nothing advice is rarely appropriate. Staying away from the news entirely may not be optimal in the modern developed world, because for every benefit we introduce by quitting the news, we are also likely to introduce a cost. But we can certainly consider what changes are optimal in our own life. Perhaps some of us read too much news, in which case we need to carefully evaluate how the consequences harm us. And maybe some of us read too little and completely miss out on important events and interesting conversations that our friends and colleagues are engaging in.
If the first thing we do in the morning is scroll through our news feed, do we feel that adds to the quality of our life or takes away from it? Do we leave the house feeling informed and happy, or sad and unfocused? If it’s the latter, there is clearly room to adjust those daily habits to create a healthier life. Rather than never reading the news again, it might be better to read the news over lunch when we’re less vulnerable to ruining our entire day. When we’ve already warmed up our minds earlier in the day with practical work, bad news may hit us less severely.
We simply have to be attentive in considering the activities that help us and the activities that hinder us. The amazing world of smartphone tech streamlines our lives by reducing our daily efforts in communication and information sharing. But that streamlining can also push us into habitual routines that we never question. It’s only through stopping, thinking, and questioning, that we can snap out of our robotic cycles and consciously weigh the costs and benefits of each behavior. To mend a broken and unhealthy habit, we first need to detect it. If we notice that our engagement with the news cycle is hurting our emotional wellbeing, then we can rethink how we spend our time and mental effort.
Empathy is not always a good thing when it’s directed toward events that we can do nothing about. Pointless suffering is clearly something we want to avoid, and some news features that stimulate our feelings of anger, sadness, and pity could be accused of carelessly toying with our emotional fragility.And worst of all, it doesn’t just impact our emotional reactions, it also biases the active decisions and choices we make. When we learn to control our attention and energy, we can spend our mental resources wherever they make us happiest.