Bryan Caplan  

Animal Farm in Reverse

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Orwell's Animal Farm parodies Soviet propaganda:
On Sunday mornings Squealer, holding down a long strip of paper with his trotter, would read out to them lists of figures proving that the production of every class of foodstuff had increased by two hundred per cent, three hundred per cent, or five hundred per cent, as the case might be. The animals saw no reason to disbelieve him, especially as they could no longer remember very clearly what conditions had been like before the Rebellion. All the same, there were days when they felt that they would sooner have had less figures and more food.
The point: In a totalitarian state, there's a chasm between daily life and the media.  Daily life is awful, but the media trumpets the glory of the status quo.

The West now has a comparable chasm between daily life and the media, but it goes in the opposite direction.  Daily life is wonderful: Unless you actively hunt for outliers, you're surrounded by well-fed, healthy, safe, comfortable people enjoying a cornucopia of amusement.  The media, however, uses the vastness of the world to show us non-stop terror, hate, fear, brutality, and poverty - not just in the Third World, but right here at home. 

Why would the media strive to make audiences doubt their own two eyes?  In the Soviet Union, the explanation is obvious: The Party used its media monopoly to brainwash its citizens into accepting, if not relishing, their wretched existence. 

It's tempting to tell a mirror image story for the West: Hostile journalists seek to undermine a glorious world they hate.  But even if these cartoonish motives were operative, Western media is manifestly competitive, so you have to ask, "Why hasn't competition stopped the brainwashing?"  The only credible response is that media consumers like hearing about a world of terror, hate, fear, brutality, and poverty. 

I can't fathom why anyone would crave a daily dose of this intellectual poison, but see no other explanation for our Orwellian situation.




COMMENTS (31 to date)
eric writes:

Journalists are taught their job is to change the world. To do so, you write articles on pathetic people and blame society. Local and national do the same thing. Most of what is emphasized in the media are these cases.

"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." Groucho Marx

John Zipps writes:

Every American's secret middle name is Cassandra.

Kevin Dick writes:

My theory is that humans have worry and righteous indignation setpoints (which of course vary from human to human, probably according to a roughly normal distribution like most traits).

If a human doesn't naturally have enough worry and righteous indignation to hit the setpoints, it will create or go looking for some. (This is obviously related to your early high neuroticism post.)

The media provides worry and righteous indignation on demand. So it's precisely the fact that daily life is wonderful that creates the need to hear unpleasant news.

jc writes:

Yes, I think @Kevin Dick is on to something.

My own theory - working this out in real-time - is that we evolved to: (a) take great pains to avoid Type II errors, and (b) enforce a certain degree of conformity within the tribe.

The logic of (a) is simple. We're always acutely looking for threats to our existence. Those that didn't, ceased to exist (and we didn't descend from them). Think you hear a lion in the brush? The price for you making a Type I error is small. The price of a Type II error is death.

The logic of (b) is a bit less straightforward, but everyone with eyes is aware that we do have a herd instinct in our natures.

We're always looking to sanction those who violate sacred norms. (And in many settings and/or simulations, actors who refuse to sanction a violator are punished more severely than actual violators.)

Why? Plenty of theories, e.g., less unified tribes being smashed by cohesive ones, a lack of infighting or theft or murder or simple free riding was advantageous enough for tribes whose members evolved natural policing mechanisms (such as gossip and ostracism...maybe a belief in God) to grow larger than those that didn't, etc.

Regardless of whether these theories explaining why we're this way are true or not, we do seem to be this way.

Many traits traits, such as reciprocity and fairness, and herd instincts, are found in monkeys, so maybe these norms evolved before we even became human.

Anyway, a lot of our behavior is probably artifactual, i.e., Savanna Principle-based where we find modern outlets for primal urges that used to be quite valuable (and may or may not be as valuable today). And the media helps us find wonderful outlets for us to judge others, feel superior by comparison, look for the modern-day equivalent of lions in the brush, etc.

kimock writes:

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Dallas Wood writes:

Bryan,

Do you think your argument is equally true for all levels of news media? Or do you think local media has more incentive to provide better coverage than national media?

Personally, I think your suggestion that the the news media over emphasizes "bad" news makes sense at the national level. The marginal cost of holding untrue beliefs regarding national politics or events in far-away places is probably low for most people. So why wouldn't consumers indulge in the news that "entertains" them?

But it seems this argument would be less true at the local level. The marginal cost of holding untrue beliefs regarding the events of your hometown is probably not insignificant. So you would want news that was closer to the truth even if it was not "entertaining." That certainly seemed to be the case for the local paper (the Mountaineer) that served the small town where I grew up (Waynesville, NC). Lots of front page news on farming, weather, etc.

The slogan summary of this distinction is "national media gives you the news you want, local media gives you the news you need."

Peter Gerdes writes:

I think it's pretty unfair to equate deliberate attempts to convince people their personal experience is incorrect (the country is actually doing great) by lying and media that totally truthfully report bad events [b]with the understanding that the audience knows they are selectively reporting the worst things that happen.[/b]

Unsurprisingly we are evolved to keep an eye out for threats and when our environment becomes safer we don't stop looking we turn our attention to less probable threats. We are also inclined to seek out novelty and stories with dramatic human impact so we naturally gravitate toward news about grissly murders or other rare dangers rather than listening to descriptions of car crashes.

Yes, this causes us to vote and even act somewhat irrationally but in no way does this entail people are really being mislead into believing the world isn't (in the long run big picture) improving. I doubt anyone listening to such programs would claim they were suggesting it would have been better to live in the 1960s (with a few truly radical programs aside).

john hare writes:

@Peter,
Not sure whether I interpret your meaning correctly, but I meet many people that believe things used to be better.

Used to be able to run a house on one income.
We used to be able to buy a new car every couple of years.
All the manufacturing jobs left the country and we are doomed.
They used to make cars that would last.

And so on with many people apparently believing things are worse than ever in face to face conversation. Facts are disbelieved when I bring them up, and poor phrasing on my part can actually hurt my credibility.

Richard Fazzone writes:

One answer:

"The press — and humans in general — have a strong negativity bias. Bad economic news gets more coverage than good news. Negative experiences affect people more, and for longer, than positive ones. So it's natural for things like Russia's incursion into Ukraine or the rise of ISIS or the Ebola outbreak to weigh on us more than, say, the fact that extreme poverty has fallen by half since 1990, or that life expectancy is increasing, especially in poor countries. But it's worth paying some attention to the latter factors. The world is getting much, much better on a whole variety of dimensions. Here are just a few."

Mike W writes:

Media...academia...pot...kettle

Tiago writes:

My hypothesis is that they "like" it only in the behavioral sense that they actively seek it time and again. But the feelings are still unpleasant. An evolutionary reason why people would seek bad news is that bad news would be rare in a hunter gatherer environment and potentially important for your decisions. If you heard someone was killed close to the river, it would be very important to have that information to either avoid the river or try to fight whoever was being violent. In that sense, all media is like porn.

Don Boudreaux writes:

At least one aspect of the bad-news bias is perhaps, in part, the unconscious result of simple economic ignorance. The aspect that I have in mind is the narrative of middle-class economic stagnation in America. This narrative says that ordinary Americans - in some versions the 99 percent, in other, less-hysterical versions the bottom 90 or 80 percent - have enjoyed no or only very little improvement in their material standard of living since the mid-1970s or the early 1980s. This narrative has been around since the mid-1990s. (SMU economist Mike Cox, then an economist at the Dallas Fed, and his co-author Richard Alm, began to try to debunk this narrative as early as, I believe, 1993. Their 1999 book, Myths of Rich & Poor, is a still-relevant read.)

It's one thing for today's college kids, or for bloggers in their mid-30s, to believe this narrative; they obviously have no recollection of life in the mid-1970s. But people such as Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Harold Meyerson, and many others who should know better repeat this narrative as if it is an undeniable truth. Yet while a handful of aggregate statistics - e.g., the inflation-adjusted average wage for production and nonsupervisory workers (which has been flat over the past many decades) - can be trotted out to support the narrative, work by serious scholars such as Cox and Alm, Terry Fitzgerald, Scott Winship, Steve Horwitz, Mark Perry, and others show that this narrative is utterly mistaken. Ordinary Americans' access to real goods and services has grown enormously over the past 35-40 years. (Improvements in this access might have slowed down a bit since 2008, but even this claim is questionable - albeit not as questionable as the claim that from the mid-1970s to 2008 there was middle-class economic stagnation.)

I suspect that at least part of the reason for the persistence of this myth of stagnation is that those who believe that high-tax, heavy-regulation government is the key to economic prosperity of ordinary people do not wish to believe that ordinary people continued to grow richer once a bit of deregulation and tax-cutting commenced around 1978. Many people who have prominent public voices - who are mostly left-leaning - simply 'know' in their bones that Carter-Reagan-BushOne-ClintonOne 'limited'-government policies must have been bad for ordinary people. Having access to some aggregate statistics that can be interpreted - for reasons explained by Jonathan Haidt - to confirm their 'knowledge,' the myth of middle-class stagnation thrives.

Shane L writes:

"Plane lands successfully and on time" - just not interesting. It's what we expect.

"Plane crashes, killing 300"
- striking, shocking, perhaps politically significant if the accident was due to human failure. Do I know someone on that flight?

It seems fairly obvious why the latter is news and the former is not.

For relatively numerate folk, long-term trends of slow, accumulative improvements are interesting. This might be a bit trickier to understand for less numerate people, perhaps.

Hank Clark writes:

Bryan,

Just a quick point of information: why is this phenomenon not a simple example of the "pessimistic bias" you write about in The Myth of the Rational Voter---on the part of both the media and those who read them?

Psmith writes:
Daily life is wonderful: Unless you actively hunt for outliers, you're surrounded by well-fed, healthy, safe, comfortable people enjoying a cornucopia of amusement.

This from a guy who goes out of his way to live in a bubble.

(Not that I think it's a bad idea to go out of one's way to live in a bubble, but 1) it makes an already unconvincing claim considerably less convincing and 2) the extensive outside-bubble presence of poorly-fed, unhealthy, unsafe, and uncomfortable people struggling to get by is a good part of the reason it makes sense to build a bubble in the first place.).

Philo writes:

We are desperately anxious to broadcast the signal that we are not selfish brutes, that we care about other people. So we must find others who are suffering--and wring our hands about them, since usually we can't actually do anything very effective.

MikeDC writes:
Why would the media strive to make audiences doubt their own two eyes?

Control.

Back when I studied such things, I remember reading several papers where research indicated that discussion of these supposed horrors was largely dependent on which party was in control of the government. If the Republicans were in control, expect a steady dose of media horror stories about homelessness, poverty, and the horrors of war. If the Democrats are in control, not so much.

Over time, the news information market has opened up and polarized so you've got Republican outlets spreading horror when Democrats are in control and Democrat outlets spreading horror when Republicans are in control (the change being that pre-internet era, market forces kept the bias somewhat in check. Now the cost of production is much lower, so every audience can get its horrors tailor made to fit its preferences).

Anyway, the point is always the same. Control. To be in control, your party needs votes, and to get votes you have to motivate people to vote. "HORROR!" is a much better motivator than "EVERYTHING IS GROOVY!".

----

Also, isn't this discovery at odds with your posts from a few days ago where you guess that folks want to minimize negative emotions?

austrartsua writes:

If it bleeds it leads

Jon Murphy writes:

I also suppose that people feel that way because major categories, specifically health care, housing, and education, are rapidly getting more expensive. Although a lot of that is due to gov't intervention.

#shamelessselfpromotion

Jay Manifold writes:

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David Dufek writes:

A few observations:

1) In my Intro to Journalism class as a college freshman many years ago, the professor corrected a student who said that journalism was about "finding the truth" and offered instead that the purpose of journalism was to "sell papers." I understood what he meant, but figured if I was going to be selling things, I ought to at least be honest about it, so I changed my major to business the next day.

2) I happen to be re-reading Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson right now, and it's as resonant today as ever. The sooner folks can understand the wealth and money are not equivalent, the better. But, as Hazlitt points out, quite simply "...tenants have more votes than landlords."

3) When someone speaks of a "news cycle", it is just that. Polling contributes to the madness, and generates news to fill a vacuum. Look at the number of self-commissioned polls that indicate, as a lead story, that XX% of Americans feel a certain way (poor, hopeless, angry...) Reporting that opinion certainly has a reinforcing effect on others who, until said poll was conducted, actually thought they were just fine.

Chris Wegener writes:

Shane L and austrartsua have it right.

The simple explanation is that it is the free market is operating as it does and Bryan Caplan, champion of free markets in everything is unhappy with the results.

In America media both commercial and social is driven by ratings and click-through rates.

Thus disasters, unhappy stories and click-bait proliferate. Talking heads screaming at each other, news informing people to fear the "other", and other sorts of distortions drive ratings. Rational discussion, meaningful dialogue motivate people to change the channel or move to the next web page.

As long as people stayed tuned through the commercial or click on the link nothing will change.

Believing, as many here do seem to, that this is a vicious plot to control people's opinions are missing the point. The fact that the the current approach leads to the "low information voter" is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is profit and anything that leads to greater profit is fair game.

The country and the people be damned.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

"I can't fathom why anyone would crave a daily dose of this intellectual poison"

I might look at a tasty apple fritter and think I want to eat it, but not only is not a healthy breakfast for me, but the actual experience of eating it is not nearly so pleasurable as I imagine it will be when I decided to stop at the doughnut shop.

MikeDC writes:
The simple explanation is that it is the free market is operating as it does

@Chris Wegener

This is not quite accurate in the way you're saying it.

Yes, the "news" market is a free market (with very interesting public goods problems). But where you're wrong is that it's a market that almost entirely serves the very non-market process of governance.

That is, people don't innately desire this sort of information, they desire information that helps their political position. And that game is very much assymetrical; unlike a market, suppliers of political information wish to supply information that helps them and hurts their competition.

The upshot of this is, if we had a more efficient government (meaning, still democratic, but of a realistically reduced scope), news media would be less extreme.

Steven Horwitz writes:

I would just add to much of what's been said here that humans have evolved with a predisposition to avoid losses rather than seek gains - for understandable evolutionary reasons. Thus we are more attune to, and more willing to believe, negative news than we are positive. It takes conscious intellectual effort to overcome that cognitive bias.

Swami writes:

Adding on to Steven and others' comments, it is an emergent dynamic. In Smithian terms, there is an invisible hand in the news selecting for problems, catastrophes and bad news.

If two news stations run two stories, and one is about a problem and the other about something which is getting better, the ratings will be better all else equal for the problem. I agree with earlier comments that we have evolved to pay attention to threats. But our attention is worth value to the media, thus they peddle attention not news.

This plays out countless times with journalists looking to get their stories in the news, news media competing for ratings.

This morning I was thinking about the story that ran a few weeks ago on the swarming stingray population in SoCal and how stings are up this summer. Next summer when stings go back down nobody will say a thing about it. And if we go several years with reduced stingrays, you can bet that someone will write a story about the horrible plight of the stingray and how human encroachment is destroying their habitat or whatever. Thus more spying rays becomes a bad story and less stingrays are a bad story, the key is to have a bad story.

JayT writes:

Peter Gerdes, there are absolutely people that think things used to be better than they are now.

For example, I was recently talking to someone that had high school aged children. He was talking about how when he was their age he didn't have to worry about all the crime that we have today because it was so much safer.
He would have been "their age" in the early 1980s, the most crime-ridden era in recorded US history. I pointed out to him that things are far safer today, but he wouldn't believe it.

LD Bottorff writes:

Ratings generate revenues for news outlets supported by advertising. What makes ratings important for NPR and PBS? These outlets are supported by corporate underwriting, audience donations, and government subsidies. Do these news outlets offer more bad news than the advertising-supported outlets?
It would be an interesting comparison, but not interesting enough for me to start paying attention to NPR/PBS.

Roger McKinney writes:

The media everywhere is overwhelmingly socialist. In totalitarian countries they defend the socialist regime. They can also lose their life if they oppose the regime. In freer countries the media always want more socialism and they promote it by falsely labeling the existing system as capitalist then trashing it.

Matthew Moore writes:

Good things take a long time to build. They are trends, not events.

Bad things tend to be events, and therefore newsworthy

Colombo writes:

From a translation of the Tao Te Ching:
"When the Great Tao (Way or Method) ceased to be observed, benevolence and righteousness came into vogue. (Then) appeared wisdom and shrewdness, and there ensued great hypocrisy.

When harmony no longer prevailed throughout the six kinships, filial sons found their manifestation; when the states and clans fell into disorder, loyal ministers appeared."

That quote seems to present a contradiction. Perhaps it is not. Media consumers that seek doom are an undesirable consequence of prosperity.

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