If you regularly read the news from a number of sources, you may regularly feel appalled at what goes on in the world.
While I really do think it’s valuable for people to be exposed to points of view that aren’t their own, I also think everyone has a threshold for the amount of bad news they can handle.
There’s an idea in psychology that posits the more bad news you watch/read/listen to, the more likely you are to think bad things happen more often than they actually do.
The term “mean world syndrome” was coined by University of Pennsylvania communications professor George Gerbner to describe this effect, specifically as it related to violence in mass media.
While that doesn’t necessarily mean news media, you can see how the idea carries over.
The more you are exposed to the idea that there is violence “out there” in the world, the more you fear said violence — even though you can look at the factual data and see the very things you fear are not nearly as likely to happen to you as, well, non-violent events.
In other words, in Merritt, you’re more likely to have your coffee paid for in a drive through by the stranger in front of you than be punched by a stranger in a mugging.
Mean world syndrome is one of the end results of Gerbner’s umbrella ‘Cultivation Theory,” which looks at how looking at television changes how we think, feel and behave long-term.
The main idea that theory rests on is the more TV you watch, the more likely you are to equate the reality portrayed on TV with real life.
Of course, we know life on TV isn’t like life at all. The issue arises in trying to reconcile expectations and misperceptions with how things are actually going.
If we want to extend this theory to news media, we may not have to look much further than the availability heuristic.
This is the mental shortcut people take to form opinions using examples that most readily come to mind, and simultaneously attaching more importance to examples that are readily available.
While recent information is typically readily recalled, it isn’t necessarily the most important information available to form an opinion on.
The more a certain instance comes to mind or the more readily the example can be recalled, the more likely it is to influence your opinions.
When we read headlines and stories about murder, terrorism, abductions and stabbings, we may overestimate the likelihood of these things happening.
The heuristic exists because it can be a useful way of forming opinions, but sometimes it goes haywire when the frequency of the event does not indicate its probability in real life.
There are far, far more deaths with unremarkable causes, but they don’t make the news.
This availability can cloud even the most reasonable person’s judgement and lead to a negative outlook.
To counteract this negativity or prevent it from casting a dark shadow on your world, you don’t have to disconnect from the Internet, cancel your cable, avoid all conversations about current events or move to a deserted island.
But you do need to keep perspective. (If you’re starting to believe everyone out there is a diabolical opportunist waiting to strike, perhaps limiting your viewing time as well isn’t a bad idea.)
You could also seek out more positive news stories, which, though they don’t make the front page or lead the 6 o’clock news, are in no short supply.
The world can definitely be a scary place, but what we need to remember is that it’s the scary stuff that makes the mass media’s news.
To some, this kind of thinking affirms that there must be some truth to the idea that ignorance is bliss. To me, it’s all about a balanced perspective. It’s when that balance tips in one direction or the other — over-saturated or ignorant — that we lose sight of the bigger picture, the real diversity of the world we live in.