I used to be a news junkie. Maybe I believed that I was important enough to alter the course of history somehow. Perhaps I found it entertaining on some level, like when sports fans watch the Olympics.
I don’t watch the news anymore. In fact, I banish it from my life. I started with TV news, which was easy enough as I rarely watch TV.
Then I stopped buying newspapers. I switched off the radio. Only my Facebook news feed remained.
I noticed Facebook morph from a cuddly, mundane place into something uglier. Once, it was a way to find out what a distant friend had for lunch. Or to see an amusing picture of their cat. Something about themself anyhow.
Now it has become a place where people share links to horrific things. Look! Look! There’s a new horror. It drops into my head space sudden and uninvited. It jolts.
I’ve found a way even to end this now. There’s an option in Facebook to hide the offending item. In itself, that locks the stable door after Neddy is in the next village. But once hidden, FB gives me the option to hide everything from that source.
Any news source gets banished. So I’m back in the world of people chatting again. If I see anything else, it’s usually a photo of an animal doing something cute. A squirrel licking an ice cream perhaps.
This is a happier place to visit.
I think more people should stop watching the news. First, there’s psychological benefits. The news is an industry. It is committed to finding horrific, depressing events and pouring them into your psyche.
Back when I followed the news, I was giving strangers unfettered access to my head space. I left the door open with a sign outside that read: “Drop your shit in here.”
I’m a lot happier now that I am the one who decides what comes in.
Yet there’s another reason to stop watching the news.
What if focusing on the bad stuff results in more of it?
The law of attraction folk say that whatever we focus on brings more of it into our life. But I’m not talking about that.
My theory is about the very human issue of social proof.
Humans are pack animals. We are hard wired to follow the crowd. That’s why we won’t go into the empty restaurant in a street of full restaurants.
We don’t think “oh great this will be roomy.”
We think “well that place definitely has rats.”
Imagine you’re strolling through your town centre one sunny afternoon. Next thing, you see everybody running frantically in the opposite direction.
Do you keep strolling? Like hell you do. You turn and sprint with the rest of them.
That’s your evolution kicking in. It’s the ages old parts of your brain that wants you to live. It takes notice of social proof and adjusts your behaviour.
Being with the crowd keeps you alive. Being against the crowd is historically a matter of life and death.
Do you know the most common fear that humans have? My guess was death. But this is something even more terrifying.
It’s public speaking. People would rather die than give a talk.
I’m comfortable giving a talk so that doesn’t resonate with me. But it makes complete sense nonetheless.
When you give a talk, you are out on your own, while your pack is all huddled safely together. No wonder the amygdala is freaking out. On the Serengeti, you’d be the poor chump getting ate by the lion. Like the gazelle who wonders off in nature programmes.
It’s scary to be against the crowd. We don’t like it.
Look at Peter Crouch. The most unlikely footballer you’ll encounter. He’s five inches shy of seven foot with a spindly build. He looks like someone put a football shirt on a giraffe.
When asked what he’d have been if he hadn’t been a professional sportsman, he answered “probably a virgin.”
He spent most of his career with teams in the lower regions of the league. He didn’t get a sniff of an England call up. Then Liverpool bought him.
Guess what happened next? Yep. He’s called up for England. Had the England coach coincidentally realised his ability at the exact same time that he signed for a bigger team?
Nah. That’s social proof at work again.
Why do you think salespeople put testimonials in their brochures? Because they know we are uneasy unless we see that others have bought and had a good experience.
Our ancient brain is freaking out in case we are out there on our own. We don’t like to be out there on our own. We are creatures who take safety in numbers seriously.
Whenever a gunman does a mass shooting, psychologists get upset with news organisations. For years now, they have argued that focusing on the killer is a causal factor in future killings.
Nobody listens. The news keeps reporting these events in the same way. Psychologists insist that more killings are likely as a result.
Why shouldn’t this be true with other things too?
There have been experiments that shed some light on this phenomenon. Not with killings, but with something more trivial. So we can see if the same principle holds.
Here in the UK, doctors surgeries have a big problem. Some of their patients who make appointments then fail to show up.
Six million appointments are missed every year, costing around £700 million.
Go into any doctors surgery and you’ll see a poster on the wall. The poster tries to persuade patients to either keep or cancel their appointment.
It points out the large number of patients that failed to show up to their appointment during the last month.
The result of that? More people don’t show up.
Social influence theorists say the reason is simple. When we draw attention to unwanted behaviour, we normalise it. It gives the unwanted behaviour social proof.
People don’t feel so out on their own about missing their appointment. “Meh! Everyone’s doing it!”
So the scientists switched the message to give the social proof to the good guys. The new trial poster read: “95% of our patients turn up on time for their appointment or call if they have to cancel.”
The result? No-shows plummeted by 31.4%. An enormous drop.
By focusing on the bad stuff, like the old poster did, they were getting tons more of the unwanted behaviour.
What if focusing on war, horror, violence, and meanness does the same?
What if we get more of it because we make it normal, like at the doctor’s surgery?
Many of my friends share news stories highlighting things they disapprove of. It’s an attempt to expose the bad things in the world.
Yet social proof says that by doing so, they are likely to be creating even more of it.
What if we decided to ignore it? What if we decided to rob the bad stuff of its social proof? What if we decided, like the doctors experiment, to focus on the good stuff instead?
Imagine if we only shared stories of kindness, joy, love and humanity? Why not give the benefits of social proof to that instead?
When the doctors did it, the bad stuff dropped by over 30%. Who wouldn’t want that for violence and unkindness too?
We can all play a role in that. We can all be influencers for kindness rather than horror.