Ignorance, Bliss, and Political News

March 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I can’t listen to the news anymore,” I said, “It’s too depressing.” The guy I said this to has been in journalism most of his adult life, so I’m sure he hasn’t cut back. If anything, h’s binge newsing these days. But I’m not alone. Google “news depressing” and you get nearly 40 million pages to choose from.


(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Arthur Brooks thinks so too in his Times op-ed today.

in the past couple of years, I have noticed a happiness pattern that relates to politics. Namely, the people most in the know tend to be unhappier than those who pay less attention.

Does an interest in politics lead to depression?  Is political ignorance bliss? When Arthur Brooks thinks what I think, I have to check my personal reactions and impressions against better information. Brooks provides some.

. I analyzed the 2014 data from the General Social Survey. . . The results were significant. Even after controlling for income, education, age, gender, race, marital status and political views, being “very interested in politics” drove up the likelihood of reporting being “not too happy” about life by about eight percentage points.

I went to see for myself. I didn’t control for all those variables – I figured the cell sizes would get very small. But the overall picture I got from the GSS was very different from what Brooks said.



(GSS respondents have three choices on the Happiness variable: Very Happy, Pretty Happy, Not Too Happy. I have left out the middle group.)

I don’t know why I didn’t find what Brooks found. Nor am I not sure what to make of the results. Unhappiness is highest among both the most interested and the least. Does this suggest “moderation in all things (or at least all things political interest)”?

Maybe 2014 was a strange year. The GSS had asked a similar question about political interest in three previous years. The sample size is larger, and the data spans sixteen years.


This time the trend is clear, and it clearly contradicts Brooks. As political interest decreases the percent who are “not too hapy” increases, and the percent who are “very happy” increases.

But even if the correlation went the way Brooks thinks it does, his explanation makes a huge leap of logic. The news is depressing because it shifts our “locus of control” from internal to external. It creates “a belief that external forces (such as politics) have a large impact on one’s life.”

An external locus of control brings unhappiness.. . . . An external locus is correlated with worse academic achievement, more stress and higher levels of depression.

To be sure, an external locus of control is not necessarily inaccurate. . . . However, the external locus of control can also be based on an illusion that something affects us — meaning that the resulting unhappiness is unnecessary.


Brooks assumes that what news junkies get from the political news is information about things that will affect their lives. That’s a big assumption. My impression is that for many news watchers, the political news is like sports. They root for their preferred politicos and policies in the same way they root for their team– not because a victory directly affects their lives but just because they want their side to win. The support for banning Muslims in order to keep America safe from terrorism is strongest in places where people’s lives are least likely to affected by a terrorist attack.

Unlike sports news, political news often has a moral component. We want to see our team triumph not just because winning is fun but because in this case it is morally right. People might hate the Yankees or the Cowboys, but nobody is chanting for them to be locked up for their sins. The partisan news shows specialize in stories that provoke moral outrage, and these are the shows most likely to be watched by those with a strong interest in politics.

But even if Brooks is wrong about the data, and even if he is wrong that paying attention to the news shifts our locus of control to external, his advice about locus of control seems sensible.

Get involved in a tangible way — volunteering, donating money or even running for office. This transforms you from victim of political circumstance to problem solver.


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