The More News Headlines We See, the Less we Care, New Research Finds

The More News Headlines We See, the Less we Care, New Research Finds

In the age of the Internet, the desire to stay informed about global events often comes at a cost – a cost to our mental health and moral values. Today, the average person spends over six hours online, and most of that time is spent on social media.

The bombardment of negative news and stressful videos shared on social media sites gives rise to the desensitization effect. Desensitization is described as decreased emotional, cognitive, or behavioural response to events after repeated exposure. Evidence suggests that repeated exposure to violence leads to desensitization to violence in some individuals.

A recent 2023 U.S study conducted by Pillai and colleagues found that simply reading headlines of unethical behaviour repeatedly can reduce our feelings of anger and the harshness of our moral judgements.

Pillai’s study examined the moral repetition effect, in which repeated exposure to content alters our moral judgments. Participants were exposed to fake news headlines depicting different wrongdoings over the course of half a month. Participants rated the headlines that they saw once versus headlines they saw multiple times. People rated headlines they saw multiple times as less unethical compared to headlines they viewed only once.

Strikingly, the biggest decline occurred between the first and second exposure to the same headline, indicating that just one repeat viewing can desensitize people to a particular transgression.

We spoke to Lisa Fazio, a professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, a researcher involved in the study. She stated that this finding is important because “increased awareness of a wrongdoing may shift our thoughts about the morality of the act.”

Another researcher involved in the study, Daniel Effron, a social psychologist and professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, explained that the most morally outrageous content tends to be the most viral, and drives the spread of information on social media.

“The first time we get exposed to an injustice, we may experience a sudden anger, which drives moral judgement. However, the next few times we encounter it, our emotional system won’t get very excited by it” – this is the moral repetition effect. When there is no intense anger, we judge the transgression to be less unethical. “When wrongdoings go viral, more people find out about it, but each person cares a little less.”

Pillai’s study suggests that the moral repetition effect may arise owing to an interaction with the illusory-truth effect, in which repeated exposures to headlines make them seem more true. When news seems truer, people are motivated to judge them less harshly because they do not want to believe they live in a world where such horrible things happen.

Fazio stated that it is useful to understand the interaction between the illusory-truth effect and moral repetition effect since the public should know that repeatedly reading about a moral wrongdoing has 2 effects: People will be more likely to believe that the event actually happened, and they will be slightly less concerned.

Effron noted that doom scrolling can exacerbate desensitization observed in the moral repetition effect. The habit of doom scrolling, characterized by continuously scrolling through negative news and content on social media, contributes to emotional fatigue and mental exhaustion.

The media tend to exploit people’s bias towards negative news, and social media apps are designed to keep viewers scrolling and recommend topics more likely to engage us, such as injustice.

Effron stated that moral judgments drive action within individual societies and globally. When we are outraged, we are more likely to come together and take a stand. The more desensitization to these issues, the less likely we are to take action against them.

The moral-repetition effect poses risks to mental health and interpersonal relationships, by resulting in experiences such as emotional fatigue, diminished empathy, and skewed moral judgments that contribute to emotional numbness and detachment. It has been connected to compassion collapse, in which individuals are less likely to help a group of victims (e.g., genocides, natural disasters) rather than a single victim.

Individuals who are anxious or depressed may be more susceptible to desensitization because they are already inclined to focus on negative information. This repetitive exposure to negative news can further contribute to numbness and exacerbate feelings of anxiety or depression.

Most news events are seen as beyond our control, which can lead to learned helplessness, which leads to increasing feelings of hopelessness. This makes it easier to become desensitized because when we feel we can’t help, we feel it’s better to care less about the problem than cause ourselves more mental distress without a solution.

So what can we do about this?

Despite the challenges, the moral repetition effect is significantly reduced when individuals base their judgments on reason rather than emotion. Mindful consumption of social media, critical thinking, reasoned judgments, and periodic digital detoxes are practices that aim to increase reasoning skills and manage emotions to avoid the moral repetition effect and the overall impact of desensitization.

-Nikita Baxi, Contributing Writer

Image Credits:
Feature: Mathew Guay at Unsplash, Creative Commons
First: Andrea Piacquadio
at Pexels, Creative Commons
Second: Geralt at Pixabay, Creative Commons