Bryan Caplan  

Headline Dismay Minimization

PRINT
An ITT I Cannot Pass... Equilibrium and Foresight ...
Evaluate this simple cynical theory of what almost every politically aware person really wants: Minimizing the negative emotions they personally experience when they read/see/hear top news stories.  In other words, the politically aware strongly care about even objectively minor problems that get a lot of coverage, but barely care about even objectively major problems that get little coverage.  And almost all their political efforts - voting, arguing, slacktivism - revolve around their ill-considered emotions.

Public obsession with terrorism but apathy about the global murder rate (over 1000 per day) is a prime example of what I have in mind.  Hideous headlines call for drastic action, but vastly greater evils the media ignores aren't worth worrying about.

Please show your work.




COMMENTS (11 to date)
Thomas writes:

Murder is a "fact of life," about which almost nothing can be done. (There are studies which show, to my satisfaction, that capital punishment used to deter murder to some extent, but capital punishment has become so rare and hard to enforce that its deterrent effect is now probably almost nil.) Terrorism isn't a "fact of life," it's usually the result of a plot involving many people. It's therefore more susceptible of prevention. Moreover, it occurs in addition to murder, not in place of it, which makes it all the worse because it's a potentially preventable addition to the daily diet of horror stories.

Alex writes:

"Public obsession with terrorism but apathy about the global murder rate (over 1000 per day)"

They aren't really comparable. People in the US see terrorism in the US and other Western Countries as a direct threat to their lives. High murder rates in distant countries are not seen as a direct threat. Similarly, people worry more about murders close to their homes than about those that are more distant.

Adam writes:

The choice between MSNBC and Fox is about negative emotion minimization.

What you're describing is the filtration of the specific events that are (or aren't) reported. You seen to implicitly assume that the news we hear reported is that which we demand from the full set of potential news items. There are however only a few clearing houses from which most outlets pull stories. Consumers only demand coverage from that subset, generally unaware of most of that on which news agencies could report.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Or that preventable diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia take the lives of 2 million children a year (over 5,000 per day), which could be solved with expansion of economic freedom.

I take Bryan's use of "politically aware" to mean:

  • unaware of politics as perceived by a libertarian;
  • a person whose awareness of order seems limited to political order;
  • unaware of voluntary order.
To evaluate Bryan's cynical theory, as I understand it, we humans are rationally ignorant. We succeed by specializing, by not learning the specialties of everybody else. We need to trust others to make a huge number of choices which affect us. The democratic state stands there, claiming to represent us, with surveys of the suggested answers to today's problem in the daily newspaper. But who has time to study all that?

See my post on why mainstream media are automatically biased toward statism.

Shane L writes:

To add to Alex's point, there's another sensible reason to be more concerned by local tragedies than foreign ones. Citizens in democracies have a vote in their own country, but not abroad. Injustice in one's own nation is something one may have a little power to overcome; less so for injustice abroad.

Back to reading the news. It may be that many people want to feel good about their tribe and feel justifiably bad about a perceived opposing tribe. The negative emotions of anger and disgust for a rival political identity, tied up with a sense of righteousness attached to one's own identity, could be satisfying and exciting. People may seek out stories that make them furiously hiss: "typical!"

MikeDC writes:

Physician, heal thyself!

What you see as a "cynical theory" of "minimizing negative emotions" is really your emotional response when you stop thinking like an economist to people who are thinking like economists.

Rather than minimizing negative emotions, the simpler explanation is that people are largely rational and "Economic thinking is thinking on the margin."

True news is "marginal". It reflects some change in the flow of information. It's essentially novel information. e.g. a spike in terrorist attacks.

The objectively bad things you're obsessing over aren't "news" because they represent little "new" in the way of information. I know living in an inner city among criminals is dangerous and horrible. The additional marginal benefit from knowing the details of the nth murder in Chicago is approximately 0 because it conveys very little additional information from a practical perspective.

On the other hand, news of sudden growth in attacks on places I go and people like me has obvious marginal value because (economic concept #2) the growth of these activities is endogenous to the response and incentives matter. While my odds of being attacked by terrorists are low, so, they appear to be growing, and it's reasonable to consider measures to reduce them before they become a bigger problem (just like I have locks for my doors and get vaccinated against measles and polio even though my odds of contracting either are vanishingly small).

So my evaluation of your theory is that you, yourself, need to stop thinking emotionally and recognize news and reaction thereof as a response to marginal information flows and policies as at least mostly attempts to determine economically rational incentives.

Franz writes:

The theory fails must be mistaken for it fails to take into account that people who cover the news, the media, like any other supplier in any other market, choose their content satisfy demand. This means that what we see in the news is, at least to some extent, a reflection of people interests. If we see high coverage of terrorist attacks on western cities, it is because people demand that. And if we do not see high coverage of U.S. drone strikes in the middle east its because people are just not interested.

Being so, the theory gets causality reversed. It is not the case that "the politically aware strongly care about even objectively minor problems that get a lot of coverage, but barely care about even objectively major problems that get little coverage.". Rather, topics and events that people highly demand (including the politically aware) are the ones that get covered in by the media. It is the demand that determines the supply, not the other way round.

Daniel Lurker writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

bob writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Floccina writes:

Makes me think of boxing gloves. They increased injury but we did not see as much blood.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top