There is a lot in the world to be concerned about. The disaster in Charlottesville and broader divisions in America. The looming threat that is North Korea. Massive hurricanes and their awful aftermaths. No doubt, these are all legitimate and disturbing issues. And, thanks to modern 24/7 news, we’re reminded of them constantly — but perhaps to no real benefit.
Most have heard of the gawker effect: it’s when there is an accident on the road and traffic piles up because everyone slows down to look — to gawk — at the accident and its victims. This sort of fascination with something that is awful but not directly affecting us is hardwired into our human nature. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to resist it.
The media and the internet (which includes all of us who use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) know about the gawker effect and exploit it often. It finds form in wild and provocative headlines, horrible images and videos, and extreme tweets and Facebook posts. Instead of stopping to look out of our car window, as we do on in-real-life roads, we instead stop to look at our screens, and often click for a chance to look even closer. In the modern economy of attention, the gawker effect is one of the best marketing tools there is.
The problem is that it’s easy to spend so much time gawking, to get so overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, that we become frozen and don’t do anything about it. We sit there and scroll and read and worry, but then fail to act — either because we’re too busy scrolling and reading and worrying, or because we feel our individual actions won’t make a difference amidst such enormous disasters. We get paralyzed.
This is a huge problem because the only way any of these issues will change for the better is if people act. The ideal media/internet would make us aware of problems and then prompt us to act. The current media/internet makes us aware of problems and then holds our attention and overwhelms us with angst.
The only way to counter this is to become aware of it and make some rigid rules for yourself. If you find yourself engaging in what amounts to news-gawking, ask yourself: Is what I’m learning making any difference in myself or in the world? Is it making me feel better about the situation? Or, is it just making me feel awful and ruminate? If you find yourself answering the latter, then force yourself to pull the plug on your gawking and take action instead.
Actions need not be heroic. Anyone can donate money to organizations that are on-the-ground in disaster zones. (If you want to help with Hurricane Harvey, start here.) You can also simply call those who are directly affected by these incidents and ask them how they are doing and offer your support. And if your gawking is about a problem with a political solution, stop reading and ruminating and start calling your elected officials. These are just three examples. I’m sure you can think of many others.
The main point is this: There is a real benefit to news. It spreads important information. But at a certain point, you should have enough information to act. And at that point, rather than gawking away — only making yourself feel worse in process — take action. Not only will taking action actually make a concrete difference in the world, it will also make you feel better because you’ll have done something to improve a bad situation rather than merely worried about it.
Issue > Concern > Action.
Issue > Concern > Rumination.
Much of the way that news is delivered and spreads encourages the latter. But the former is always a better choice.
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Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine.