Your Brain, On News

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Stop what you’re doing right now and look around for five seconds.

What did you see? Maybe the interior of your home, your friends, your family, nature, a cityscape, your workplace, the inside of the bathroom stall you’re currently occupying. Was any of it on fire? No? How about collapsing, dying, or exploding? Oh, no again?

Ahhh, but wait — some of you did see those things. Those of you whose televisions are tuned into the news in the background did see the despair, destruction, and dystopian dereliction. This is because what we have come to call “news” is merely a chronicle of the abnormal — oddities that are so out the ordinary they seem worth reporting.

Let’s think about the collection of all experiences of all world citizens over the last hour. Now, let’s plot all those experiences along a histogram that runs from 0 to 10. Let that spectrum represent banality, or the normalcy of the experiences; zero represents extremely negative experiences, and 10 represents extremely positive experiences.

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After plotting all those experiences, we’d end up with something that looked pretty much like the bell curve above. The vast majority of experiences would be pretty much, average — nothing really bad or good, just kind of boring, normal.

Enter the news.

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The typical experience reported in the news is dramatically skewed to the left. In other words, the overwhelming majority of what we call news comes from the very bad tail of the distribution of experiences. Of course, we’re intrigued by experiences from the left tail of the distribution because they are shocking, unsettling, worrisome — they get our attention. And the media loves these stories for those very reasons — we watch them, read about them, listen to them… and the ads and agendas interspersed therein.

The average modern consumer of media will have a very difficult time framing the reporting they are consuming according to the non-bastardized bell curve above. This is because the media fails to provide proper context to all the sensationalism. If media reporting of news was distributed evenly across the bell curve, we’d all quit watching, reading, and listening, and the news corporations would go out of business — it’d mostly be boring stuff.

The point is that today’s public discourse, which is driven by improperly framed news, continues at fever pitch, in an increasingly anxious and frenzied debate about whether or not the world is coming to an end simply because we’ve all forgotten to take a look around. Most everything is neither bad nor good, it’s just… normal. Most of what you or I experience today and for the rest of our lives will be average as well. Same goes for future generations.

It’s really not all that bad, on average.

That being said, we do need to acknowledge the potential impact of what is called tail risk. This is the out-sized impact of rare events. There will be things that happen that are way out the ordinary that have a considerable impact on your immediate experiences, but these are far less common than contemporary news-driven discourse would lead us to believe.

Financial institutions and insurance companies and other risk managers must carefully study and prepare for tail risks. But I don’t think that’s any way an individual person should look at living life — obsessively worrying about how rare events might impact oneself or one’s family is no way to improve things. We all have a conscience about what we believe is generally good. We should act accordingly and live a virtuous life within our immediate sphere of influence. Exacerbating public frenzy about the possibility of future rare events by engaging with the “news” only serves to distract ourselves and others from living well in the present.

Extreme events will always happen, but they are very unlikely by definition. If we spent collectively as much energy working toward helping our neighbors with basic needs and doing generally useful things as we do worrying about tail risks inflamed by the news media, we’d all be better off. If you want to have a better day, turn off the news and put away your social media feed — it’s the same as mainstream media in that it vastly overemphasizes tail events — and just look around. There’s really not that much worrisome stuff happening to you.

All this isn’t to say we should ignore problems that we think will affect future generations, but talking and stressing and fighting and worrying about those issues doesn’t do any good. You can do while not talking. Do the right thing, infrequently read smart summaries of current events and realities, then proceed with your life in a way such that your personal impact will be as favorable as possible on the long-term outcome. No single person is going to change the world, but together we can have a dramatic impact. There is no doubt, however, that animosity generated by overzealous reporting of unevenly distributed experiences by the media will undermine the efforts of individual members of our species to live properly and leave the world a better place than they entered.

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