I rarely watch the news, but I found myself clicking over to my local outlet the other day to see what was going on. The top story? A stabbing death just a few blocks from my place.
I immediately felt uneasy. What’s going on in my neighborhood? Is this happening everywhere?
I did a Google search and found a number of other news outlets reporting on the incident. Even more frightening, they started to report on other assaults around town, weaving together a story of violence and suggesting a trend we should all be very, very concerned about.
When I finally ripped myself away from the news long enough to regain my composure, I started to think about my own everyday life. I walk around here every day. I’ve never seen a crime committed. I’ve never felt unsafe. I know my neighbors. They all feel safe, too.
I thought to myself: Is this all a giant ruse? My daily reality tells me life is great, and I can enjoy it without fear. But when I watch the news, I feel like danger is lurking around every corner and I should be suspicious of everyone I meet.
So, I did a little research, and uncovered an unsettling truth:
Crime rates in my neighborhood are hardly a blip on the map, and have never been high or alarming for any reason. The same is true all over my city, Portland. In fact, it’s true the entire world over. Crime rates in the developed world are lower than they have been in many decades!
Where on Earth is this giant discrepancy coming from? The news—the place I go to tell me about the world around me, is making me fear for my life when all evidence suggests I should feel even safer today than I did yesterday and the day before.
That’s when I discovered a troubling truth about how news works. Read on to learn about this major flaw and how you can not only avoid falling prey to it, but turn it around into a force for good in your own life and creative pursuits.
How The 24-Hour News Cycle Is Killing Your Creativity
The world is safer and more crime free today than it has been for decades. And long-term data suggests crime has trended down since the beginning of time. Yet most people think of the “good old days” as the safer, more stable times.
What’s causing this discrepancy between perception and reality? Mostly, it’s our unprecedented access to information.
The reason we feel the world is more dangerous today is because years of technological improvement have shrunk the distance between faraway places and dramatically cut the time it takes to get new information.
Years ago, if you lived on one side of a city and something bad happened on the other side, it was a coin toss whether you’d find out that it even happened! The only news that traveled long distance was the most incredible news because moving information was cumbersome and expensive. And more, news was only transmitted to the public at certain times by a few media empires.
Today, moving information from one side of the globe to another is trivial, and it happens 24 hours a day on TV and the Internet. If I’m in Portland, I can get on Twitter and learn about bad things happening in Ukraine in real-time.
With so much access to information, it’s no surprise we hear about more bad things happening. In reality, there’s less bad news than ever, but now you hear about every terrible thing in every corner of the world. Before, for better or worse, those events were trees falling in forests with no one around to hear.
Deviancy Amplification Spiral: The Truth Behind The Giant Lie You’re Being Told
It’s enough that you’re inundated by bad news all day long, but what makes it worse is an unfortunate phenomenon called the Deviancy Amplification Spiral (DAS). DAS is like a bug in the human brain that misclassifies information.
As humans, we have a deep need and innate ability to find patterns and associate meaning to events in our lives. This trait serves us well in many ways. It helps us organize ourselves, save time, build things, find diseases, create medicines to fix them, and much more.
But when it goes wrong, it can go really wrong. When something bad happens, it’s our nature to look for other events that could be related to it (even if there are none) to find a reason and assign a meaning to it, even if there’s none.
Ever felt like there’s always a new crime wave sweeping the nation that disappears? A new “teens taking some crazy drug” trend that no one has ever heard of? Some new disease that’s going to wipe out humanity, but never does?
This is DAS at work. A bizarre—but isolated—incident occurs, and we don’t have a good way to explain it. So, we grasp for other events that look similar to find a reference point and some meaning even though they’re unrelated.
Because the news is always on, it further amplifies the effect of DAS. One news agency makes a sensational (but inaccurate) report, and before it can be corrected, it’s already spread across the Internet and retweeted a million times like a virus taking over your body.
And this is how you end up afraid of the world more and more every day when, in reality, you should feel safer and more secure. You avoid doing the risky things that will make your life happy and meaningful.
But there’s great news: There’s something you can do about it. You can even turn DAS into a force for good.
The Low Information Diet For A Happy Brain
So, the world around you is safer than it ever has been, and the big risks you want to take in your life may, in fact, be less risky than you’d anticipated. But how do you get yourself to believe it?
First, you must remove yourself from the tight grip of the Deviancy Amplification Spiral. The best way to do this is actually quite easy: start a 30-day trial of a low information diet. Cancel your cable subscription and get rid of your TV. Then, unsubscribe from every newspaper subscription you have and any email newsletter that reports the news.
This step alone will improve your life tremendously for a number of reasons, but the first is you’ll no longer have information pushed at you. Instead, when you hear about something you want to know about, seek out the information you need. Being in control of the information you allow into your life adds a tremendous amount of personal confidence.
If it seems infeasible, I’ve been living this way for nearly 10 years, and I’ve never missed information I need to know. Instead, when I hear about something that may actually concern me, I can search specifically for the news I need and bypass the mountain of it that doesn’t affect my life and creates fear and uncertainty.
That’s the first step. The next is to turn DAS into a force for good. Once your mind has been cleared from the never-ending barrage of bad news that bogs you down, you’ll find you have more time and energy to create things. Good things, hopefully. And now you can use that bug in our brains that’s normally exploited to create panic and fear to create movements for good instead.
- Start a blog that highlights good things in the world, and use DAS to inspire others to share it. Upworthy is a great example of an organization that does this well.
- Create art and encourage the people around you to share it. Help others making art share theirs. Soon, the world will think there’s an epidemic of meaningful art being created. We should all be okay with that.
- Influence your friends and colleagues. If they spend their day hearing about horrible things, spend time making sure they hear something good. Slowly but surely, you may win them over to a new way of thinking.
You’ll find as you remove more and more information from your diet, space opens up to create more. You spend less time consuming, and more time making things. That’s a good trade on its own. But the other thing that happens is you lose the fear and uncertainty all that irrelevant news created inside you.
And a life filled with less fear and more creativity is one I think we all aspire to. Good luck.