The Fear Factor: The Fascination with Scary News (Even after Halloween)
In mass-media news reporting, frightening and depressing news seems to grab our attention—and more of it, along with more space, than uplifting news. Is that because of some human instinct, the Zeitgeist of our age of anxiety, a ruling-elite and mass-media agenda or because news media are convinced we feel bad news is more important or fascinating than good news?
Imagine two headlines: “Recruiters Live Longer than Everybody Else” and “Recruiters Are Dying Younger than Everybody Else”. Or, how about “Recruiters’ Average Salaries to Soar” vs. “Recruiters’ Average Salaries to Plummet”? If you could read only one in each pair, without knowing how well-supported the research is, which one would you chose to read?
I’m betting it would be the gloom-and-doom headlines.
The “Gloomberg News”
Forget what I think. Mainstream media seem to think you’ll choose the story with the scarier, bad news headline. For example, on October 29, 2012, the Fox News “Latest News” stories list comprised 16 reports, 12 of which being about “bad and/or scary things”, e.g., cannibal cop, murderous nanny, abusive scoutmaster, fighting in Syria and death of an author.
In addition to lopsidedly reporting bad and scary things, Fox and many other mainstream news media consistently focus on “rogues”—scary or bad individuals, as opposed to ominous economic trends, excessive manipulative corporate influence, urban decay, vanishing water, public health problems, rogue organizations (both private and governmental, e.g., shadowy military-contractor agencies), bad legislation, scary ideologies, military-industrial-financial collusion, dangerous technologies, environmentally polluting practices, ominous demographic trends, global warming and/or cooling, risky scientific research (e.g., GMO), to name but a few.
Now why is that, if not to make it seem that most of the problems of the world are caused by scary rogue individuals rather than by more powerful, even scarier forces, e.g., sinister groups, organizations, cartels or rampaging, vengeful Mother Nature?
November 1st was even more of the same—14 out of 16 stories were obviously negative news, with only one being clearly positive—a story about a poker-winning millionaire. An ostensibly uplifting story about an abandoned baby being found alive actually has horrible negative implications about some evil rogue individual’s (or couple’s) parenting. Likewise, a karate expert’s pounding of an intruder, however inspiring, calls attention to the rogue intruder and the menace out-of-control individuals (rather than out-of-control spending).
Here’s the entire list of the November 1st Fox “Latest News” of the day. Notice that virtually all of them deal with scary individual rogue humans or animals (as though these are the main forces shaping our times and large-scale real problems):
- Sandusky sent to prison housing death row inmates
- South Dakota executes man for raping, killing girl
- Bachmann in tough re-election bid, as challenger attacks stardom
- 2 panthers escape enclosure fence in Florida
- Cops: Man burglarized home with 3-year-old son in car
- Mich. police search for possible sniper in car shootings
- Oklahoma man on motorcycle collides with bull
- California karate student pummels intruder
- Final Brown-Warren debate canceled, as poll shows close race for Massachusetts Senate seat
- Maryland man, 24, wins World Series of Poker, $8.53M
- Newborn found alive after being abandoned in handbag
- California restaurant’s sign offers cockroach warning
- Ohio teen found guilty of murder in Craigslist scheme
- Iowa man accused of biting stepchild in punishment
- Mom allegedly abandons kids on side of interstate
- Group calls attention to ‘racially insensitive’ costumes
(No inspiring stories here, like that of Taylor Wilson, the teen prodigy who constructed the world’s first nuclear fusion reactor when he was 14 and, at 17, created a nuclear radiation device that could save us all from dirty bombs hidden in dockside containers.)
Then, of course, there is the enormously popular Drudge Report (drudgereport.com), where in just one subsection of its November 3rd news links, all of the stories were scary, bad-news reports:
- OCTOBER UNEMPLOYMENT UP: 7.9%…
- RATE HIGHER THAN WHEN OBAMA TOOK OFFICE…
- President Faces Voters With Highest Unemployment Of Any Incumbent Since FDR…
- ROMNEY: ‘Sad reminder economy at virtual standstill’…
- Incomes Continue to Decline…
- Long-Term Rate Rises to 40.6%…
- Blacks to 14.3%…
- Food Stamp Growth 75X Greater than Job Creation…
In its headline reporting about hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, again, all of the stories—all 15 of them—were gloom-and-doom, anger or fear based, piled on like a mountain of “Gloomberg News”:
- Drivers Waiting 6 Hours For Gas in NYC…
- Tempers Rise in Wake of Storm…
- ‘Finding bodies left and right’…
- ‘They forgot about us’…
- CHUCK SCHUMER CONFRONTED: ‘We Are Gonna Die!’
- CRAIGSLIST: $15 a gallon…
- Utility workers pelted with eggs…
- Residents Furious RED CROSS Offering Cookies Hot Chocolate, Not Blankets Or Clothes…
- Jet Fuel Supply Fast Becoming Concern At Airports…
- Staten Islanders Plead for Help: ‘We Need Food’…
- ‘Please don’t leave us’…
- VIDEO: Stranded New Yorkers Defecating in Apartment Buildings…
- NJ town enacts 70s style gas rationing…
Although not as extreme as this on a percentage basis, a sample of recruiting news returns from Googling “recruiter” and “recruiting + LinkedIn”, promptly turned up “bad news” and scary headlines like these:
- “How the Recruitment Process Became Inhumane” (News.com.au, 10/25/2012)
- “How Not to Get a Job” (The Telegraph, 10/31/2012)
- “How to Scare a Recruiter” (WSJ, 10/30/2012)
- “IT pros should beware the counter-offer: recruiter” (IT World Canada, 10/25/2012)
- “The New Science of Resumes and Why Yours Sinks to the Bottom” (Fastcompany.com, 10/19/2012)
- “How to Destroy Your Video Strategy in One Step” (Business Insider, 10/16/2012)
Yet, perhaps because the entire recruiting industry runs on hope, the bulk of recruiting news is either matter-of-fact neutral or positive. Of the 16 news articles posted at Recruiter.co.uk, not one was negative. Here at Recruiter.com, 4 out of 20 headlines reviewed had some negative tone—but mostly related to employee layoffs and unfavorable shifts in business trends (which reflect simple facts of life, such as “shifts happen”). Not one was a real horror story (although one Recruiter.com feature article, 4 Hiring Lessons From Horror Movies by Sajjad Masud, calls attention to analogies between Halloweenish horror movies and recruiting).
Why So Much “Gloomberg News”?
Apart from such statistical evidence, armchair psychology and general observation suggests that nothing grabs our attention as quickly as scary, bad and alarmist news. Pressed to explain both our predilection to pay attention to such dark news and the mass media’s frequently lopsided focus on it, I would offer the following hypotheses:
- Hardwired Psychological Priority of Danger-Oriented Vigilance over Opportunity-Oriented Vigilance: Danger-oriented vigilance is probably evolutionarily more fundamental and hardwired into our brains than opportunity-oriented vigilance, just as, given a choice between avoiding pain and securing an equivalent level of pleasure, we will probably choose avoiding the pain, assuming identical levels of intensity, cost and benefit (respectively), frequency, duration and what Jeremy Bentham, the 19th-century British utilitarian philosopher, called “fecundity”—the amount of subsequent pleasure or pain that the original pain or pleasure generates, e.g., the pain of a hangover that follows a Jack Daniels binge or the pleasure of university graduation generated by the pleasures of four years of intense study. (I did say “imagine”.)
Common sense suggests this is so and as it should be. That’s because failure to be vigilant for and about a danger will, in general, be more catastrophic for any living thing than failure to pay attention to an opportunity.
Overlooked dangers, virtually by definition, tend to have immediate bad consequences, whereas missed opportunities offer a “grace period” before the costs of the lost opportunities. A seal failing to notice the polar bear closing in as it closes in on a fish may pay for seizing that opportunity—with its life.
To get a feel for this difference in human terms, imagine a Neanderthal who chooses to seize the opportunity to mate beneath towering ferns rather than to keep an eye on and two feet ready to flee “Soto” the “Ice Age” saber-toothed tiger he hears hidden in other ferns.
(Actually, despite any movie depicting such, the Neanderthals of Europe and North American saber-toothed tigers never encountered each other, since they were on different continents.)
In this instance, the choice may come down to attending to the danger of immediate annihilation in the jaws of the saber-tooth, or the delayed danger of dying without progeny later, as a result of having missed the Neanderthal maid in the forest mist moment. In its simplest terms, this is an instance of choosing the risk of eventual genetic annihilation in preference to immediate as well as genetic death.
2. The Math of Fear: Mathematics also suggests the same thing: In my article “The Simple Math Underlying Why We Hate to Lose”, I use very basic arithmetic to demonstrate that, in general, the prospect of not losing any amount of money means more to us than the prospect of gaining the same amount. Translated into a bad-news and fear news model, this means that we are more likely to read articles that alert us to feared losses than imminent gains, when those losses and gains are the same size.
3. Mass-media “circus-and-dread” manipulation: Roman emperors lulled and appeased the masses through a “bread-and-circus” strategy of gladiatorial distraction, entertainment and conditioning to accept violence and displays of imperial power, combined with their equivalent of food stamps.
The stadiums and their design have changed considerably since then, but the ultimate name of the game and the underlying designs remain eerily similar: Keep the masses focused on dangerous Coliseum “heroes” and “villains”—“rogues of the State”, so to speak.
Hollywood themes of individual rogues, psycho loners and outlaw heroes reinforces the message of danger with the trope of the dangerous individual and stranger-danger (which is a very effective deterrent to mass collaborative demonstrations and crusades with other “strangers”).
This strategy taps into whatever instinctive preoccupation with dread that is innate in us. It also takes advantage of the possibility that the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow was right: at the base of our pyramid of needs is the need to feel safe (comparable to whatever need we have to feel safer than the other guy, including the less lucky—and to feel good about that).
On this hypothesis, our susceptibility to bad, scary, alarmist news doesn’t have to be and isn’t completely innate: Its’ bred into us by mass-media programming as part of our brainwashing to keep us compliant and apart.
Recasting, in terms of fear, Voltaire’s aphorism about God, “If it did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.” So, one way or another, we will always live and read in fear and gloom.
Do you find such thoughts frightening and gloomy? Good.
You are supposed to.