Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS

 

A Modest Proposal That May Shock You

Here’s a two-week experiment to help you clear your mind of distorted perceptions. As a bonus, you’ll find yourself happier.

We all like to think that we have an accurate worldview. Most of the time, we’re wrong – we have a distorted view of the world around us.

A large part of this distortion occurs because we’re careless about what we let affect our internal filters.

You notice what you’re interested in. Your perceptions tend to support your pre-existing beliefs. You can sift through the external world and find evidence to back up just about any belief you want.

For example, can you recall, from your own personal experience, events to support the belief that people are shallow, self-centered, and mean and will stab you in the back if you give them half a chance? I imagine that you can.

However, I also imagine that you can recall, again from your own experience, events to support the belief that people are kind, generous, and supportive and often go out of their way to help others.

Evidence exists for either belief. Which you notice and remember depends in part on what you are primed to notice.

A person with a pre-existing belief tends to notice events supporting that belief. They’re blind to equally valid evidence of the opposite viewpoint.

In a way, it’s the same as noticing all the blue Ford cars on the road the day after you buy one yourself.

We have control over our beliefs and our filters, but only if we actively exert that control. If we don’t take control, outside influences will do it for us.

The news media constitutes one such outside influence. It consistently and persistently presents a very selective and distorted worldview. If we follow the media regularly, we’re at great risk of assuming this distorted perspective as our own.

I remember teachers in high school declaring that good citizens should follow the news media to “stay abreast of the world around us.” That was lousy advice.

The news media, God bless it, doesn’t exist as a public service. Their primary mission is not to inform and educate. It does not give us a balanced view of the good and the bad in the world. If it did, good news would hugely dominate.

Zzzzip.

“What was that?”

“Oh, that was just the bad news for the year.”

The media doesn’t strive for balance. The media’s overarching drive is to attract viewers or readers.

To that end, the media picks its stories based on their sensationalism, their likelihood of getting attention. The saying in the newsroom is “If it bleeds, it leads”.

Most news stories convey little or no information you need to know or that you’ll be able to take action on.

For example, I used to have my clock radio set to go off with the radio rather than an alarm. As often as not, I’d wake up to the top-of–the-hour news summaries. Awful.

One morning, in the horrifying few seconds it took me to rouse enough to push the off button, I heard about a serious school bus accident in Europe, a child in Texas that died because his mother left him in a car on a hot day and a soldier who was killed on his way back to base by someone throwing a cinder block off an overpass.

Consider those stories. Yes, they’re true, they happened. But what do they have to do with my life? Is there some action I can take about any of them? Is the information useful? Of course not.

The wire service this radio station subscribed to scoured the globe looking for the most sensational, headline-grabbing stories they could find. They weren’t interested in accurately representing the overall state of the world. They just wanted to get people’s attention. These were the most sensational stories they could find and they foisted them onto me

As a result, I began my day with my mind filled with horrible images. They were remarkably hard to shake.

How do you think hearing those stories might have affected my internal filters and my thoughts about the world we live in? Rather badly, obviously.

Filters based on those stories would be extremely inaccurate.

Yes, there was a school bus accident. It’s also true that every day, year in and year out, tens of thousands of school buses safely convey millions of students between their homes and school. Also, maternal love, care and nurturing expressed all over the globe daily far outweighs the rare episodes of maternal neglect that make the headlines.

If you let the news media decide what stories enter your experience, you’ll be seeing the world through a very distorted set of filters.

So here’s my modest proposal. Drop the media. Fire them.

You don’t have to do it forever. Just as a trial, say for two weeks.

For two weeks, I’d like you to avoid any media news sources. That means no radio, no CNN, no news blogs, no news magazines – none of it.

The point is to just notice what you notice.

You might experience a change in the way you feel. Your outlook may shift. You may find yourself more engaged in the world immediately around you. If you’re not distracted by news about mud slides in California, you’re more likely to appreciate the beautiful weather that’s your experience.

Some people find this experiment difficult because they’ve established a habit of checking the news. That means it’s even more important for them to try it.

Others worry that they’ll miss something important. They don’t need to. If something truly important happens, someone will tell them. Here’s how that goes.

We all remember where we were when we heard of the attack on the World Trade Center. I was in middle of an operation on a man’s carotid artery.

An OR nurse not involved with the case came to the operating room to tell us about the first plane going into the World Trade Center.

Then she felt the need to come back with updates.

After about the third news flash, I rather sharply told her to stay the hell out of my operating room. I had the major artery to one side of a man’s brain opened and I needed to have my attention and the attention of everyone in the room completely focused on the job at hand.

Even important stories can have low priority in your personal world.

This news fast is only an experiment. It’s just something to try. I want you to experience the quality of your life with and without the news media in it. If you think the media really helps you and you’re better off with it, great – go back to following it. I think you won’t want to.

But you won’t know for sure unless you try the experiment.

One more story. Most of the things we think are so important in the present moment turn out to be completely irrelevant in the very near future. Watching a movie recently brought this point home to me.

Dave is a pleasant romantic comedy. In it, Kevin Klein plays a man who looks amazingly like the president of the United States. In a plot twist typical of romantic comedies, he winds up standing in for the president (hey – it might happen).

If you enjoy light comedies, I recommend the movie. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Netflix.

I mention it here because it was filmed in 1993. Because of its political theme, the movie had a cute little twist of major politicians and news reporters doing cameo appearances as themselves. These folks were the movers and shakers of the time.

What struck me as I watched it was how forgotten most of them are now.

You may remember “Tip” O’Neal, but even his performance on the national stage has become a footnote. His contemporaries’ roles have faded even more.

This suggests to me that time spent following the soap opera that was politics of the early 90’s might not have been the best investment of one’s time and attention.

I think we’ll feel the same someday soon about the big stories of today.

So try this little experiment. I think you’ll find your world a better place and your view of it much clearer.

I'd love to hear about your results. Email me at jsphfm-jfm@yahoo.com

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