Leland Teschler • Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW_LeeTeschler
A study by the nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center made headlines recently when it concluded that almost 90% of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the state of the country. Before we get too discouraged over current events, it might be good to consider work by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. Pinker, and other psychologists as well, say people have numerous emotional biases toward pessimism. One manifestation: Misfortunes tend to put people in a bad mood for longer than the good spirits that come when Lady Luck smiles on them. Lose ten bucks, for example, and you’ll likely stew about it long after you’ve forgotten about winning twice that amount.
All in all, people process information about bad events more attentively than information about the good ones, Pinker says. That negative bias is probably because of our evolutionary history: The consequences of an overreaction for our cave-dwelling ancestors was less than that of an under reaction, which could have resulted in being dinner. Thus our sense of risk, fear, and anxiety is out of whack with the objective risks we face today.
We are also prone to systematic thinking errors when interpreting information. These thinking errors can effectively make things seem worse than they really are. The idea, which won two economists a Nobel Prize, is that the more easily you can recall an example of something, the more likely you are to think it is representative of what’s going on. Thus anything that makes an event more memorable — like, say, a barrage of screaming headlines about murders — will also make it seem more probable. (In the same vein, Pinker thinks news headlines are to blame for people consistently estimating that the present day is more violent than the past. Actually, the data show past times were far more violent than today, and violence has been declining.)
That brings us to the events as covered in online news sites. Picker says psychological biases interact with the nature of news as it’s spun today to cause a pessimistic bias. I’d put this differently: Headline writers exaggerate events in the hope of getting more eyeballs.
Examples are easy to find. Here is a selection of recent headlines pulled from one news site: Disturbing discovery made at Queen Elizabeth’s estate (This turned out to be people using royal the grounds as an outdoor toilet.); Golden Girls fans left shocked by latest news (True only if you are shocked at pulling an episode involving the wearing of mud masks.); Country superstars share heartbreaking news with fans (They are divorcing. Sad, but heartbreaking?); ‘Doomsday’ mom faces horrifying new charges (The horrifying charges are two counts of conspiracy to commit destruction, alteration, or concealment of evidence.); Malia and Sasha Obama admit the truth about Michelle. (No idea. I gave up trying to figure out the “truth” after clicking through numerous ad-infested pages.)
Clearly whoever wrote these headlines is easily heartbroken, disturbed, and horrified. But such misuses of extreme nouns and adjectives harms society in another way: When the news cycle finally covers a significant event like a pandemic—which really is horrifying on a certain level—headline writers are stuck using the same words they relied on to announce a celebrity’s bad haircut.
Now that truly is a bummer. DW