Many people experience some good things in their lives, some people experience many good things, and there are a few unfortunate people who experience many terrible events. Yet for most people, the world is arguably not that bad a place. Given this, why does it feel like the world is falling apart, and getting worse and worse all the time, in ways that appear beyond the best efforts of anybody to control?
Perhaps media companies, including social media, play a role in projecting this pale representation of reality through their news coverage. To the extent this is the case, then the concept of learned helplessness can help us understand why the world can feel so bad, and why the digital newsfeed is particularly adept at creating this feeling.
When, in Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for the film "Network,"1 the character Howard Beale—the mad prophet of the airwaves—rants about what we would now refer to as the "coercive control" or "emotional abuse" exerted by media news coverage, the character highlights the sense of helplessness that can easily engulf people when confronted by endless bad news. The character outlines how constant exposure to murder, crime, and mayhem shrinks everybody’s world as they become increasingly frightened by the horrendous and uncontrollable events that apparently surround them. These symptoms are characteristic of learned helplessness, the phenomenon first described by researcher Martin Seligman a few years prior to the film.2
The effects of TV news coverage of what Daniel Boorstin called "pseudo-events"—manufactured events of no other significance than to attract attention3—are bad enough. High levels of exposure can produce a freeze-like response in the face of the apparently uncontrollable nature of these aversive events. This behavioral reaction was first described in rats that were shocked with mild electrical pulses, with no relationship to their own behaviour and with no possibility of escape. This produced a "giving up" and withdrawal, along with a raft of physiological effects.
But the negative effects do not stop at the behavioural and physiological.4 There is a further impact on cognition. The development of helplessness shifts the focus of attention of an organism from itself to the world. That is, their locus of control becomes external, rather than internal.5
After exposure to uncontrollable aversive stimuli (such as unremitting bad news), attention to what is being done by the person reduces, and attention to what is being done to the person increases. This results in even more attention being paid to the incoming aversive stimuli, which the person cannot control (and is becoming less aware that their actions can control anything), and cements helplessness even more solidly. The attentional shift to the external may be evolutionarily adaptive in the short term when an environment is hostile, but it is certainly not conducive to long-term adaption to environmental changes.
Over and above the behavioural and attentional alterations, exposure to uncontrollable aversive stimuli impacts the ways in which people characterise the world’s events. There are alterations to the attributional style6 assessing causes in the face of uncontrollable events, such as continual negative newsfeeds.
The style tends to become global rather than specific (e.g., everything is bad), stable rather than unstable (e.g., the bad things will never end), and internal rather than external attributions (e.g., it’s me, not the world). The development of this helpless style of causal attributions makes a person start to see everything through this particularly cloudy lens—the effects of the negative newsfeed, in other words, generalise to the rest of that person’s life. This interpretation of the world is made worse as the attention system is searching for negative events, which then reinforce the interpretation.
It is the sudden insight into these damaging effects that sends the "Network" character Howard Beale over the edge and causes his descent into madness. How much madder may he have become if he had lived to see the emergence of social media and internet newsfeeds? This form of digital presentation takes the problem of bad news to a new level.7
It is not just the unremittingly bleak and uncontrollable nature of digital newsfeeds that causes the problems. This would merely be a magnification of the effects of old-fashioned media news coverage. Such a magnification would be damaging enough, of course, although there is a limit to the degree of helplessness that can be felt—and the idea that it can’t now get any worse could provide a sort of Job’s comfort.
The real issue is that digital newsfeeds add a new dimension, connected to the algorithms that keep supplying digital news.8 The more you look at stories of a certain type, the more those types of stories will start to appear. This digital echo chamber effect adds a further layer to the damage done by bad news.
The news fed to digital devices is more-or-less bleak in nature, and its nature is outside people’s control—earthquakes, fires, wars, economic collapse, the impending sale of favourite football players to other teams, warts, and diarrhoea, are beyond the control of the person reading the story. All of this will reduce the strength and breadth of their behavioural repertoire (their willingness to do something),2 focus their attention on the external,5 and develop a helpless attributional style.6 The key difference from traditional bad news is that digital bad news, because of the algorithm relating it to a person’s search strategies, will reinforce more strongly the internal dimension of the helpless attributional style.
There is a sense in which the overall affectively bleak nature of the world, as presented by digital newsfeeds, is being created by the person themself. The more a person looks at particular types of news, usually related to the things that they consider important, the more they receive news stories on that topic, which are more likely than not to be bad. Thus, in one sense, it is their fault that these news stories appear, as there is a direct relationship between their behaviour (searching the newsfeed), and the appearance of more and more personally relevant, uncontrollable, bad news stories. The aspect of helplessness that this will impact is the internal attributional style—it is them, and not the world.
Any reasonable person must acknowledge the damage that digital newsfeeds are potentially capable of inflicting on people’s psychological, emotional, and behavioural states. I argue that the best remedy for the newsfeed variant of helplessness syndrome is to do two things.
Firstly, turn it off, as it is not a fair representation of the world. Secondly, practice what Martin Seligman describes as the "Three Good Things" exercise.9 When you can—every day, if possible, but certainly a few times a week—write down three good things that have happened to you. Also, write down how you made them happen—what you did to cause them.
This process will do two things: It will introduce more positives into your world, and it will cement the idea that you have caused these good things to occur. Reclaim your power from purveyors of digital news, and make yourself happy.
1. Chayefsky, P. (1976). Network. Network (scriptslug.com)
2. Seligman, M.E.P. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23 (1), 407-412.
3. Boorstin, D.J. (1992). The Image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. 1961. New York: Vintage, 316.
4. Maier, S.F., & Seligman, M.E.P. (1976). Learned helplessness: theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 105(1), 3.
5. Reed, P., & Antonova, M. (2007). Interference with judgments of control and attentional shift as a result of prior exposure to controllable and uncontrollable feedback. Learning and Motivation, 38(3), 229-241.
6. Alloy, L.B., Peterson, C., Abramson, L.Y., & Seligman, M.E.P. (1984). Attributional style and the generality of learned helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(3), 681.
7. Reed, P. (2022). Newsfeed anxiety. Psychology Today. Newsfeed Anxiety | Psychology Today
8. Reed, P. (2021). Are echo chambers a threat to intellectual freedom? Psychology Today. Are Echo Chambers a Threat to Intellectual Freedom? | Psychology Today
9. Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.