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Indifference to Tragedy in the Age of Constant Coverage

Watching the news can be depressing. Sure, there are plenty of wonderful things in the world, but regularly following world events highlights the long list of things to feel miserable about.

So, how does all of this televised tragedy affect us? The good news is that people are remarkably good at distracting themselves. The bad news, according to some recent research, is that when we distract ourselves from such media coverage, we can end up convincing ourselves that these tragedies aren’t that important.

Distracting Away from Tragedy

In a series of studies published in Cognition, researchers set out to create environments that mimic our everyday interactions with media. In all three studies, they presented people with a video covering famine in the African country, Niger. The video included vivid depictions of people suffering intense hunger and appeared to be actual news coverage.

The participants in the studies had the option to watch this footage closely or distract themselves or deliberately avoid engaging with the video. The experiments handled this in a few interesting ways.

media05In the first study, people came in for an experiment and were led to a waiting area where the TV was turned on to a news station. The audio was quiet, as it is in most waiting rooms. Some participants were told to simply wait for a few minutes and to feel free to watch the TV. Other participants, however, were told that they could watch TV but that they also had to complete an activity on the computer before finishing the study. Although they were given the option to do this activity after everything was finished, most people chose to do it in the waiting area. In other words, they chose to distract themselves from the news program about famine.[1]  There was also an additional control condition where the TV was turned off the whole time. People in the control condition responded to the later survey just like people who actually watched the TV program.

The second study took place online, and everyone got to choose fun short videos to watch. Before their chosen videos played, though, they website played an advertisement for a CNN news special about famine in Niger. Some of the participants had to watch the whole ad before watching their chosen video, but some of the participants were given the option to skip the ad after 8 seconds. That is, some of the participants could choose to distract themselves from the news coverage.[2]  It’s worth noting that they also had a version of the study where the ad was just about a neutral computer product. Skippable or not, this ad didn’t affect people’s views on famine.

Finally, the third study used the waiting room procedure again, but this time people weren’t told that they had to do something else while waiting. Instead, there were simply a bunch of magazines and gadgets on the table, including an Etch-a-Sketch and optical illusion cards. In this waiting area, people were keen to distract themselves from the TV news program.

How Distraction Breeds Indifference

The question in all three of these studies was whether voluntary distraction would change how people think about the deep issue being presented in the background.

media02To tackle this, they gave all of the participants a survey after they had finished waiting or watching the videos. The survey was about “the importance of political issues,” and people simply rated a bunch of issues for how important they seemed.

Some of these issues included preserving wildlife regions and abortion, but some of them were specific to hunger. That is, people also rated how important they thought “reducing hunger” and “poverty reduction” were.

Across all three studies, when people had the chance to distract themselves from news coverage about famine in Niger, they rated hunger and poverty as less importantAnd it’s not just that distraction made everything seem less important. It didn’t at all affect people’s answers to questions that were unrelated to famine.

The researchers also saw some evidence that people in the distraction conditions thought the government should allocate less money to poverty and malnutrition programs.

Influence By What’s In the Background

So why does this happen? The studies are pretty quiet as to why distraction renders the issue less important, but they do turn to self-perception theory as a possibility.

Self-perception theory basically says that we learn about our beliefs, preferences, and opinions by reflecting on our own behavior. For example, I think I must like Chipotle because I get lunch there pretty often, and I must not like chocolate milk because I can’t remember the last time I had it.

The same thing could explain these studies’ results. When people make a choice to do another activity, skip the ad, or play with an Etch-a-Sketch instead of watching a CNN report on international famine, they may look at their choices and think, “Well, if I’d choose this instead of watching the news program, I must not think the issue is that important!”

This may hit close to home. After all, with constant exposure to deeply troubling issues in the world, you’ve probably  sought some distraction in the past yourself. It can be hard to chew on every tragedy, so we think, “I just don’t have the energy to keep up with it all!” But telling ourselves that we can’t keep up may be convincing us that these issues are less important.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  There was also an additional control condition where the TV was turned off the whole time. People in the control condition responded to the later survey just like people who actually watched the TV program.
2.  It’s worth noting that they also had a version of the study where the ad was just about a neutral computer product. Skippable or not, this ad didn’t affect people’s views on famine.

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