Ignoring the News Makes People Care Less

With TVs, videos and online content all around us, we often find ourselves having to block out different kinds of media. After all, with the information overload that’s possible in modern society, knowing when to ignore screens is the only way to avoid constant distraction.

What are the effects of, say, tuning out a news broadcast in the background, though? A new study from psychologists at Princeton University has delved into this question and found that ignoring media can lead us to subconsciously revise our opinions and attitudes. Specifically, it appears that ignoring news broadcasts may subsequently lead people to decide they care less about whatever topics the broadcasts cover.

In the study, researchers looked at how people responded to media coverage of a famine in Niger. The coverage depicted the human suffering resulting from the famine, and the researchers looked at whether the coverage would “activate moral concern” in viewers.

For the first two experiments, participants watched either a TV news program or an online video about the famine. Some of the participants were instructed to distract themselves from the news program or skip the video. For the third experiment, participants were able to choose whether they watched or ignored the TV program.

In all three cases, participants who had ignored the media content said they saw poverty and hunger as less important issues when they were later surveyed. Strikingly, they were less concerned about poverty and hunger compared not just to those who had watched and paid attention to the TV program or video, but also compared to those who had never been exposed to the media content in the first place. Since participants were instructed whether or not to ignore the content in two of the three experiments, it appears that ignoring the content actively made people think of themselves as caring less about hunger and poverty.

We sometimes talk about how the media we view influences us, but what these results suggest is that the media we don’t view influences us too. The things we choose not to see shape our assumptions about our values, which ultimately affects how we see the world around us.

Image: Flickr/cycle60