Nothing travels faster than light, with the possible exception of bad news, which follows its own rules. ~ Douglas Adams Click To Tweet
At a time when human beings have access to an unprecedented volume of information from a huge wealth of sources, one fact has remained unchanged for over a century; since newspapers began, editors and owners have been quick to realize one key truth about people: we love drama.
This taste for scandal has shaped the way that we consume news for generations. From celebrity sex tapes to barbaric acts of terrorism, all are treated as fair game by tabloids looking to win as many readers, or viewers, as possible.
Today, as always, we remain fixated with tabloids and their hyperbolic, dramatic versions of events. Tabloid newspapers still outsell the competition, their websites still get the most traffic, and sensationalist TV news still has the most viewers.
As well as being attracted to disaster, we are paying more attention to irrelevant negativity in the lives of others than we have at any point before.
But why? Empathy? Fear? Vicarious thrills?
In fact, there’ve been a number of scientific studies seeking to answer this very question.
An idea long-held by psychologists states that humans are attracted to drama and horror in the news because, on a primal level, we are seeking to protect ourselves from the very same dangers.
For example, we may be engrossed by the horror of terrorist attacks because we’re looking to ensure our own safety from exactly this type of horror. As a result of news coverage, the audience may conclude that the site of the attacks (such as London or Paris) is no longer somewhere they wish to spend their next vacation.
“People will always want bad news because they don’t want those bad situations to happen to them…”
This theory can be applied to our interest in more superficial dramas, too. Apparently, obsessing over the struggles of the rich and famous can be attributed to the same self-preserving principles. So when we find ourselves reading about some faded child star checking into rehab, it may just be that we do so, on a more or less unconscious level, to learn from their mistakes, rather than to revel in them.
Essentially, this theory is all about the way in which our attention to drama can help us to avoid it in our own lives. Experts have pointed to man’s former existence in a hunter-gatherer environment, in which grave occurrences had to be met with attention in order to ensure survival.
According to Jill McCluskey, a professor of economics at Washington State University: “People will always want bad news because they don’t want those bad situations to happen to them, think of those shark-attack stories in the summer.”
Respect To Hierarchy
The global phenomenon of celebrity culture has prompted many studies into exactly why we take such an interest in the lives of other people.
Psychologists like Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary specialist at the University of Michigan, put this obsession with celebrities down to, again, a primitive tendency to observe the dominant individuals in a given society. According to Kruger, we behave in this way because we are actually seeking to learn from celebrities, in order to become more like them and therefore to move up the social hierarchy ourselves.
Proof of this can clearly be seen in the way that so many of us copy the behaviour or image of celebrities; just take a look at the term “style icon” for example.
The thing is, this is a primitive behavior we no longer need. Our progression up the social ranks has not been essential to our survival for quite a long time now, and to behave in this way is, in fact, literally quite primitive.
Shattering Our Ideals
“…more often than not, we’re responding to deeply primitive, unconscious impulses when we get sucked into the latest media outrage.”
Researchers Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka set up an experiment at McGill University that sought to shed some light on why we’re drawn to drama in the news.
In one interpretation of their results, the pair suggest that as individuals, we generally have a view of the world that is considerably more utopian than reality. Therefore, when we’re confronted with drama or scandal in the news, we’re shocked not only by the events, but by the shattering impact they have on our own world view.
To put it another way, imagine that for the majority of us, our outlook on life is a pristine white sheet. When we encounter drama, such as a murder or even a celebrity sex-scandal, it’s as though the sheet has been stained, and it’s the sheer contrast created between the stain and the purity of our personal reality that grabs our attention.
The Threat To Democracy
Some psychologists, including Soroka, have suggested that our appetite for drama may have its roots not in our instinctive reactions, but in something altogether more worldly.
They argue that if the democratic role of the media is to act as a fourth estate, then bad news stories are our most effective method of confronting injustice and, therefore, of preserving democracy.
In this sense, we are attracted to dramatic news not because it poses a direct threat to us as individuals, but because it may endanger the democratic values that many of us hold dear.
In this sense at least, when we hear of a terrorist attack, a corrupt politician or even a murder on the news, we consider it as a direct assault on our very way of life. The shock factor mentioned in the previous point pulls us in, and the perceived threat to our way of life fuels the fire and keeps us reading.
We Only Know A Little — But Maybe It’s Enough?
In the end, humans’ seemingly endless attraction to tabloid gossip, scandal and ‘bad’ news is a massive topic that needs to be fleshed out with many more large-scale studies. What we’ve covered here is most likely a very small tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it’s helped shed a little light on the subject, and can serve as a reminder that, more often than not, we’re responding to deeply primitive, unconscious impulses when we get sucked into the latest media outrage.
So next time you feel your stomach flare at an outrageous headline, take a moment to tune in and realize what’s happening. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find yourself simply letting it go and walking away– that is, on two feet with a firm stance on the ground. Let the rest of the world continue swinging by their tails.