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How to stop your brain’s addiction to bad news

Your brain is wired to pay attention to bad news. Here’s how to hack that.

How to stop your brain’s addiction to bad news
[Photo: Ajeet Mestry/Unsplash]

Turn on the news these days and you’d be forgiven for thinking the world is about to end. From politics to climate change to the economy, negative and bad news surrounds us everywhere we go.

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The problem isn’t just that there are terrible things happening around the world. But also that our brains are simply wired to pay more attention to unpleasant news. Psychologists call this the “negativity bias” and have found that it’s one of the first things we develop as children.

And while this bias may have helped our ancestors pay attention to potentially life-threatening situations, today it’s getting in the way of our happiness, well-being, and even our productivity.

Why reading or watching bad news first thing in the morning is so bad for you

There’s a couple of issues at play here. The first is the problem of when we consume news.

A study by researchers Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan along with Thrive founder Arianna Huffington found that just three minutes of negative news in the morning (versus more uplifting content) can ruin your mood for the rest of the day.

Next is the problem with consuming bad news itself. According to data scientist Kalev Leetaru–who used a technique called “sentiment mining” to assess the emotional tone of articles published in the New York Times from 1945 to 2005, as well as an archive of translated articles from 130 other countries–the news has gotten progressively gloomier since the 1970s.

Far from being better informed, heavy news consumers end up miscalibrated and irrational due to a cognitive bias called the Availability Heuristic. This bias explains that people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.

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It’s why people rank tornadoes (which kill around 50 people a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills closer to 4,000).

To combat the negative news cycle, slow down and pick your battles

Everyone wants to feel informed. Yet too much exposure to the news–especially negative news–can seriously impact our mood and ability to be rational and logical. So what do we do?

For one, we can start by slowing down our personal news cycle. Smartphones, push notifications, and news apps keep breaking news (which is usually negative) at our fingertips. Or worse, send it directly to us without our consent.

To break this cycle, Hooked author and behavioral designer Nir Eyal suggests we read printed newspapers rather than online news.

This way, he explains, he stays informed but also receives closure by only reading as much as the daily paper provides. He trusts the newspaper’s editors to curate only the top stories each day and doesn’t have to fight the urge to click to the next story in an ever-updating flurry of new news.

But slowing down the news cycle isn’t a complete solution. We still have to deal with misinformation and the reliability of news sources. The threat of “fake news” and news cycles too fast for fact-checking puts the onus on the reader to discern what’s reliable and what’s not.

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Discerning reliable news from misinformation is a skill, according to freelance journalist Jihii Jolly, that all readers need:

Choosing what to read, when, and how is a news literacy skill. In the same way that financial literacy requires knowing how money works and the most effective methods for managing it, news literacy requires familiarity with how journalism is made and with the most effective ways to consume it.

Blindly following the news cycle can also make it hard to change your mind when new information arises.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist who’s been studying efforts to correct inaccurate information once it’s been shared, has found that in general:

Once factually inaccurate ideas take hold in people’s minds, there are no reliable strategies to dislodge them–especially from the minds of those for whom the misinformation is most ideologically convenient.

So if it’s so hard to correct misinformation, even when presented with the truth, perhaps Gillmor is right, and we need to be more skeptical from the beginning.

How we deal with news overload at RescueTime

Our goal at RescueTime is to help you spend more time on meaningful work. Yet, even though we’re working toward this every day, most of us struggle to wrestle free from the grip the negative news cycle has on us.

Here are some tips from the RescueTime team on how to stay informed without becoming overwhelmed.

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While many of us have given up on Facebook, software engineer Brian points out why it’s a struggle to keep up with the barrage of information shared in his News Feed:

Facebook, in particular, has become most peoples’ news source, at least as far as I can tell. The issue for me is that if I scroll through 100 posts from friends/acquaintances, there are quick one-click shares from news organizations, usually the headlines and content of those posts are negative, rebellious, angry, etc.

. . . and the more important the issue, the more shares you’ll see from different people. At the end of the day, it can feel overwhelming, and make me absolutely not want to engage in real discussion or debate, because I’m sick of talking (reading) about it.

Software developer David says he’s just started to adjust his approach to news:

My morning routine for the past year exactly . . . has been, awake, make sure the world has not destroyed itself (by checking headlines at CNN, New York Times, and Washington Post) and then looking at Twitter and Facebook to see what various communities I belong to think of the disaster of the day.

It is wearing REAL thin now, and I’m trying to figure out ways to dial it back but not disconnect.

I’ve started fighting it, first by choosing to take a walk in the morning (BEFORE I look at the iPhone) and rowing during lunchtime. I turned on the breathing reminders on the Apple Watch as well. They help me stay calm. For me, getting a rowing machine and Apple Watch has come at the right time. Not only to get back in shape and watch my health . . . but as a way to have something more personally productive to focus on instead of the stream of concerning news.

For data scientist Madison, the best bet is to restrict news consumption to just her phone. And then make sure it’s not nearby during the workday:

Most of my news and general content consumption is done on my phone. I stay away from visiting news or social media sites on my computers to keep focused on work or learning while using the devices. Lately, I have been leaving my phone outside my office to avoid picking it up to browse when I am trying to be productive.

COO Mark, like David, focuses on a healthy balance during the day:

The world has changed in the last couple years, and some news intrusion feels inevitable. I feel the need to stay more current than in the past, but still try to avoid news before lunchtime. My strategy for a while has been:

  1. Leave phone on mute most of the time and always put face down when out of pocket.
  2. I ditched Facebook many years ago, and only log in maybe two to three times a year for some family news.
  3. Change light intensity environments and eye subject distance at least every hour (get outside, let eyes focus on something distant for an extended period of time, like a 10- to 30-minute walk)
  4. Exercise in the middle of the day.

While our senior software engineer Hank also tries to cut down his consumption overall, he’s found focusing his online reading on non-news stories helps:

I pretty much aggressively ignore stuff. I only enable notifications from very few apps. I’ve never had Facebook. Don’t check email or Twitter outside of certain times (or when I get stuck and need a context shift). And I try to keep a fair bit of my reading online focused on tech, etc. Taking a break for physical activity is also a big helper.

It’s a relief to know we’re not alone in our struggles against the relentless flood of bad news. Everyone from journalists to well-known authors seems to be grappling with the fine line between being informed and being overwhelmed. However, if we want to be happier and more productive, we can’t let the negativity bias take over our days.

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A version of this article originally appeared on RescueTime and is adapted with permission. 

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