The news has been in the news a lot lately. Trump got elected and Facebook et al are under fire for allowing fake news to spread.
There are people who feel compelled to stay in tune with the news though it doesn’t make a difference to their lives in practical terms. Why?
We love stories. Our brains are designed to make and perceive stories. The news in like a bed time story for adults. Going to different countries, or even different news outlets in some countries, will reveal two things. First, the main character is always a good guy. Second, the good guy always wins. It can’t all be true, but it sure makes a good story.
Our brains are designed to scan for danger. This is to keep us alive. The news usually reports a lot of bad things.
Our brains prefer exceptions rather than the ordinary. This is kind of like scanning for danger. It’s another mechanism to draw our attention to anything that’s odd – called attentional bias. The news certainly reports a lot of odd.
Our brains love noticing change rather than seeing the wood for the trees. It’s called anchoring. A small cut to a health system’s funding is likely to cause outrage despite the fact that it is otherwise generously funded. The news only reports changes.
Seeing the same thing over and over makes us like it. It’s called the mere-exposure effect. We like the news anchors and the tune of the news opening titles.
We love having opinions. The news is told in a way that it is easy to make judgements. It also makes us feel that our judgements are informed. This leads to naive realism and naive cynicism: assuming that our worldview is informed and everyone who disagrees with us in uninformed and biased.
It makes us feel like we’re right. Our brains love confirming that what we already know is true – it’s called confirmation bias. Because the news repeats itself a lot, it constantly feeds us the same type of information. A nice resonant echo chamber. To make things worse, we believe things more when they are repeated. It’s called the illusory truth effect. A vicious circle of biases.
It gives you something to talk about with your friends. Empty chatter is better than none to most people.
For most people, the news is a distraction that brings all of the above pleasures. It’s neither meaningfully informative, nor does it make our lives better.