Paul Nixon's Blog |||

Bad News

A few years ago, principally triggered by the Brexit referendum outcome and the associated trauma, I asked myself the question

What would happen if I turned off the endless stream of anxiety inducing data (ie the news) about which, anyway, I’m powerless to do anything about?

The answer, having been significantly successful in this project, I can report is a) I don’t feel like I’m missing anything and b) I’m happier without the miserable soap opera in my life.

1. Why do we care about the news anyway?

As I reflected on the matter it did not seem completely bonkers to challenge the fundamental, and widely held, assumption that being abreast of current affairs is a good thing’.

For a start none of it really makes any difference to my day-to-day life. So a government minister is forced to resign? Big deal - I get up the next day and get on with my life just as I did before.

Question for those that are skeptical - when’s the last time you got information from the media that caused you to take a materially different course of action in your life than you would have done otherwise?

I have a pet theory about our attraction to current affairs which I’m rather fond of. As a species we have spent most of our evolutionary past in small tribes where information - the news! - was not just interesting, it was potentially existentially interesting. News had survival value - our ancestors that liked to know what was going on were more likely, on average, to stay alive, and have children, and have children that, through inherited genetic influence, also liked to know what was going on.

And, going just a little further - it seems probable that knowing bad’ news was inherently more valuable, from a survival perspective, than good’ news. This is perhaps evidenced by our in-built Negativity Bias - the idea that we experience more distress when something bad happens than we do pleasure when something good of equal magnitude happens. Or, more simply, that bad is more powerful than good.

2. Journalistic Incentives + Evolutionary Mismatch = Sad Times

The situation would be markedly improved if journalistic incentives were aligned towards the discovery and propagation of the truth. But it isn’t - the incentives are to make profits, and profit comes from engagement.

The journalistic business model has always been based on creating articles to attract our attention and sell the adjacent space to advertisers. The business model has not changed, but now it is on steroids - with much of our news consumption moving online - where maximising our engagement becomes a more scientific and measurable, and individually tailored, endeavour.

All of which would not be so bad if it were not for the evolutionary mismatch problem. Our in-built preferences that used to favour our survival in our ancestral environment are now being ruthlessly and expertly gamed for profit - what used to be beneficial features have become exploitable bugs in our modern environment.

The rather depressing fact of human nature is that we are simply more engaged by the negative. And the more extreme, and the more pressing the better.

As my beautiful daughter would say : sad times.

3. BBC News

I took a screenshot of the BBC News homepage when sketching out notes for this article and took the liberty of overlaying some nice colours to indicate the sentiment of each piece.

BBC Home Page

I’ve used red to highlight bad, green for good, grey indifferent and orange for the bizarre.

Even the good news at least has some bad news - you won’t get away with celebrating the British Golden Globes winners without having to enjoy the fact, in passing, that Australia’s bushfires were often mentioned”. Every silver lining should have a cloud after all.

And this is the BBC. Not the Daily Mail. Or the Guardian. Or Buzzfeed. Or a clickbait scam artist. It’s the BBC trying to live up to its mission : …to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”. And terrify. And anger. And depress. And optimise on traffic engagement figures as measure of their success.

4. Consequences

One of the amusing-if-it-weren’t-so-tragic consequences of this is that this onslaught creates the illusion that we’re living in the very worst of times when in reality these are the very best of times. I challenge anyone to find a metric (poverty, literacy, infant mortality, lifespan, etc) that is worse now than it was 50 years ago.

Let’s take poverty as an example, from Information Is Beautiful (which is very much worth a visit by the way)

World Poverty

That is simply overwhelmingly and staggeringly good news. Those living in extreme poverty has reduced from 1-in-3 to 1-in-10 in slightly over 20 years - and, yet, 90% or so of the western world are convinced of the opposite.

The world of journalism is terrifying us for profit. And unfortunately it’s working. Catastrophe, fear and panic sells and we can’t help but believe what we are seeing and reading every day.

5. Practicalities

I can’t claim to have completely insulated myself from the goings on of the world, however he’s what I have done

  • Cancel subscriptions (eg Economist)
  • Stop visiting online news (eg BBC News)
  • No TV news
  • No radio news
  • No newspapers
  • No news apps (eg Apple News) on phone
  • Unfollow anyone on social media that significantly comments on current affairs

6. Conclusion

As the very wise Naval Ravikant says

Don’t be passionate about things you can’t control; like politics

There is, of course, a nagging doubt in the back of my mind perhaps best expressed via Kant’s Categorical Imperative which says only act in ways that can be universalised without contradiction’. I’m not at all convinced that the world would be a better place if everyone was completely ignorant of the affairs of the day.

However, we have one life only. My duty is to myself and those around me first and foremost, and my n=1 experience is that my world is a better place without being knee-deep in the toxic swamp that current affairs has become.

I recommend you try it - genuinely what have you got to lose?