Post No.: 0428
It’s absolutely fantastic, for example, to hear news stories about women in CEO positions or winning in mixed gender sports contests. But wouldn’t it actually be even more fantastic if we lived in a world where such stories stirred relative indifference?
…What I mean is a world where such events are so commonplace and ordinary that it’s nothing rare or unusual to need pointing out, and therefore they’d make quite uninteresting news stories to bother reporting on – in a similar way to if the news ran a story today about a man in a CEO position or winning in a mixed gender sports contest again and the main focus of the story was his gender. Yawn.
Many cultures like underdog stories, such as ‘rags to riches’ stories – but if such stories weren’t in reality so relatively rare and unrepresentative of the statistical odds then they wouldn’t make the news so much, and they wouldn’t make quite so interesting movie plots for Oscar bait. In reality, there are a ****load more ‘riches to riches’ stories but these don’t make the news because they’re boringly frequent events. This skew in reporting can make people believe in things like ‘all you need is hard work and determination to succeed’ when we’re missing the wood for the trees – as in the bigger, more representative, picture of reality.
Other kinds of stories that tend to be popularly-reported and celebrated are ‘David versus Goliath’ (where David wins), ‘karma will prevail’ (or really ‘good always wins in the end’), and ‘against the odds’, stories; which by logic the latter are statistically unlikely and atypical and should not be rationally expected to happen very often in the real world.
Hope and positivity are tremendously important in life, but correcting injustices such as gross levels of inequity in a real fashion so that positive or fairer outcomes happen more often – rather than hanging onto mere hope or focusing on those exceptionally rare positive outcomes – would make for a better world in a more practical and statistically real sense. Meow.
Some types of stories of relatively rare events catch our attention because we want to use them to defend or justify our own choices or agendas, such as stories of people who intentionally dropped out of school but became rich, or people who ate junk every day and didn’t exercise yet lived to 90. Not all such stories are therefore ‘inspirational’ in a good way.
It’s not always about rare good or inspiring news getting overplayed though – for example, mass shootings tend to always capture the national and sometimes international news headlines but they only account for a miniscule minority of firearms-related homicides, which may mean that the impact of mass shootings are being overplayed… or it could alternatively mean that firearms-related crimes in total are much, much worse than even what these mass shootings convey. Non-mass-shooting homicides and suicides via firearms are so incredibly commonplace in a country like the USA that individual cases of these barely get reported in the national or even local news unless some other detail is unusual or remarkable about particular cases. Well internationally, the UK media barely even covers every single mass-shooting incident that happens in the US anymore because even these have become perceptually pretty commonplace or ‘ordinary’ in that country now. A lack of news therefore doesn’t always mean good news.
Other events that are quite commonplace yet receive disproportionately little news coverage or social media conversation about them include road traffic accidents, diabetes deaths and heart disease deaths. Data breaches or leaks from companies are a weekly news event nowadays and hardly make the front pages anymore unless they’re exceptionally large breaches. On the other side, so are nicer events like people from different ethnicities or religions getting along with each other, healthy babies being born and people who play violent video games not turning violent. Overall, the world might be better than you think! (Read Post No.: 0151 for more about this.)
So relatively rare but salient or surprising events (at least according to present perceptions) are more likely to each individually get reported in the news rather than just clumped together into a statistic, such as each and every single aircraft accident or death caused by a rigorously tested and monitored vaccine that occurs; whilst relatively common events, which are therefore deemed too boring for the media to bother reporting, seldom do each get reported individually, such as each and every single road accident or death from measles that occurs.
This means that we somehow mustn’t just pay attention to what grabs our attention – we need to pay attention to the fuller and therefore more honest picture. Many things stand out and are memorable precisely because they are unusual or rare. The opposite happens too – things that are so frequent can be so embedded and accepted in a culture that most people don’t even flinch whenever it happens, such as hearing micro-aggressive racist or sexist comments, or the Hollywood stereotype that the good guys tend to have wholesome American accents and the bad guys tend to have stern English accents (although in this case it makes the bad guys way cooler in my, probably biased, opinion!) Such things require a lot of noise made about them before enough other people really take notice that they’re problems.
But on a good note, the media generally concentrates on bad news and people doing bad things but the more complete reality is that people are overall nice and friendly otherwise civilisation would cease to function. If we would only pay more attention to and be grateful for all the good around us and in the world then we would take it all less for granted. A lot of good things that happen around us don’t individually stand out because they’re not rare, but we shouldn’t ignore what’s so mundanely but pleasantly ‘everyday’.
Stories of mentally-disordered people harming others often make the headlines (or make clichéd movie villains) – yet drunken people, people who abuse hospital staff, commit domestic abuse, etc. don’t always make the papers when these cases are far more recurrent. Whenever there’s a murder case involving a perpetrator with a (merely suspected or unspecified) mental disorder, much of the media just throws out unverified conjectures that are emotive, fearmongering and based on stereotypes; including presenting all mental health disorders as homogenous. The public generally takes all this at face value, then the media doesn’t chase up to check their conjectures, and therefore the public is left to assume that all those conjectures were true because there has been no alternative hypothesis presented. (Most people desire a simple explanation, and someone’s individual, personal mental health problem is also more acceptable to blame than collective, society-wide factors such as a lack of mental healthcare funding because the latter would mean that one and everyone would be partly responsible for the consequences too. Mental health education is gradually improving though.)
By focusing on the rare, extraordinary or unusual, the media perpetuates a culture’s false or overly crude stereotypes. Covered stories are usually dramatic events, associated with strong emotions and are amenable to strong visual imagery – concrete images, such as of distressed or ecstatic people, are more striking and memorable than plain statistics or abstract information. This all feeds the availability heuristic, where exceptional and salient events are disproportionately mentally prominent and memorable, even if they’re very unlikely to happen again. This leads to a problem where incredibly unlikely events can be irrationally more influential and persuasive on our laws and policies than very likely events.
Strong, visceral and emotional imagery can be utilised in a beneficial way though, such as to reduce the number of people who smoke cigarettes – although people can shut off to such techniques if used too much.
Nature documentaries, too, normally cherry-pick reporting on the salient events over more typical events, such as the rutting season of a species, which may only occur for 1 week per year, and where only 1 minute of selected footage can result from every 400 minutes of recording! That can give the false impression that fluffy animals in nature are constantly in a violent tooth-and-nail state of conflict when this is hardly representative of the full and fairer picture. (Finding an atypical behaviour and extrapolating that could be equivalent to an extraterrestrial species studying a human with Tourette syndrome and thinking that that’s normal for humans.)
Sometimes the most extreme people are selected for the most dramatic effect, such as for weight-loss or money-saving programmes, where a family who eats or spends way above the national average is selected so that their weight loss or savings will seem more impressive in the end for doing stuff that many other people are basically already doing! People who pollute a lot can cut down their pollution the most, but that’s easy for those who started from a high baseline, so they might still not be so virtuous even after their changes in absolute terms. And this could also have an unintended effect of making much of the audience think ‘maybe I’m not that bad myself after all?’ by comparison hence they’ll carry on as they are.
In the commercial or medical world, USPs, or unique selling propositions, are shouted about more in adverts so that they’re made more available in the minds of consumers. This includes the exceptional positives (which may only have arisen due to pure chance too) of some alternative medicines. Meanwhile, the exceptional negatives of the MMR vaccine are made more disproportionately available in the same way. The rare is over-hyped or over-emphasised according to what suits one’s motives or self-interests. Peddlers of scams such as pyramid schemes focus on the relatively few who’ll get rich in their glitzy adverts, while they hide the fact that the vast majority of members will lose money.
Terrorist attacks, for instance, are major salient events, but each and every terrorist plan thwarted by the authorities is a relative non-event, and non-events don’t normally make the news, or at least not as major headline news, even though there may be many more of these non-events happening compared to each dramatic event, and no matter how important these non-events may be. (It’s like pupils who seldom get high grades for their homework might gloat about every single occasion they do, when it’s more of a non-event for those who regularly get them. A high-achieving pupil doing worse than usual can in turn become over-emphasised; although we should watch out in case a pattern emerges – but once is not a pattern.) Non-events, such as thwarting or preventing crime, can therefore become under-appreciated – every failure to protect will be noted in the news but every success, unless they’re dramatic near-misses, will be considered non-events. So these kinds of non-events should really be regarded as events too, just like failing to find a positive result in a scientific experiment is a result that needs to be published too.
So to summarise – rare events typically get disproportionately too much news coverage about them, and common events typically get disproportionately too little news coverage about them. And that affects how much conversation the general public gives about these issues too, and how much the general public over-fears or under-respects them. The media shapes – or in this case misshapes – our perceptions.
Therefore, to have a more accurate and fairer view of the world, whenever you come across a news story, ask – does this story only stand out as interesting precisely because it’s relatively rare? And ask – are there other stories we’re neglecting as uninteresting because they’re so commonplace?
Meow. We can end up focusing our concerns, efforts and resources on the wrong things, or prematurely rest on our laurels, when we are being led by what’s rare, unusual and emotionally salient and when we fail to pay enough attention to the cold, hard numbers.