Soapbox: Have we kicked our habit for bad news?

campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 27 September 2012 08:00AM

The Games lifted us from the dissonance we are used to, but for how long, Charles Vallance asks.

Charles Vallance is a founding partner at VCCP

Charles Vallance is a founding partner at VCCP

For me, one of the best bits of the Olympics was that, for about a month or so, it became unfashionable to moan and disparage.

Left wing, right wing and middle of the road all found common cause. Loads of public money had been spent (albeit on an elite), while the Games Makers demonstrated the power of volunteerism and, dare I say it, a big society.

Outside of all our golds, there was a more general sense of triumph. Not simply that Sebastian Coe and co had done a great job, but that they had also proved the doubters and cynics wrong.

The question is: how quickly will we revert back to our former ways? Will the mood of enthusiasm prove to be just a lull in proceedings, a summertime armistice, or will we see a change in the way we conduct ourselves and the way we make judgments? Sadly, I fear that the change might not last the winter.

It is easy to blame the media for being the cheerleaders of gloom, for preferring to decry things and for focusing on the bad. But it isn't really to blame. Occasionally, when listening to or reading certain media, you can be surprised by just how sanctimonious a reporter or interviewer can be, how supercilious they are towards the people they're interviewing or how gleeful they sound when more bad economic news washes in. Sometimes, the impression of detachment and moral superiority is so strong it's as if the Pharisees have made a comeback. But an occasional outbreak of journalistic piggishness shouldn't distract us.

The reason that journalism and the media aren't to blame is that they're clearly giving us what we want. Otherwise, they would go out of business (apart from monopolies such as the BBC, which tend to be the most Pharisaical).

So why do we love bad news, confrontation, objection and doubt so much? The reason might be to do with the way the mind works and, in particular, Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance. His research showed that the mind and its cognitions (beliefs) like to be in a state of balance rather than dissonance. Therefore, if we feel anxious, we will look for reasons to justify our anxiety. And then, paradoxically enough, we can relax because our minds have achieved a kind of equilibrium.

The problem with modern life, IMHO (I use the acronym to show how modern I am), is that rather than creating specific, resolvable anxiety - I hear a noise, I see it's a lion, I scarper or I die - it creates non-specific anxiety.

We are prone to have a more general feeling of foreboding and insecurity - is the answer always to switch it off and on again? Is my pension going to be worth anything when I retire? Why do I feel less safe when the crime figures are falling? These aren't things we can do much about, but they are worrying all the same and might create a permanent dissonance to which we have grown accustomed and may no longer even be aware of.

But our brain is. It's looking for anxiety-inducing messages to offset the dissonance. And we know just the place to go. Twenty-four-hour news, for a start. There we will find plenty of evidence of horrible things to justify our feelings of vague disquiet.

I have no evidence to back this up, but I suspect this counterbalancing spiral is escalatory. The more we feed our anxiety, the hungrier it gets. That's what was so interesting about the Olympics. We went cold turkey and, briefly, kicked the habit. We may even have quietly realised that we happen to live in one of the best countries and best democracies at the best time (in terms of longevity, security, technology and tolerance) in human history. Ever.

If this realisation lasts, then that really is a legacy.

Charles Vallance is a founding partner at VCCP. Jeremy Bullmore is away.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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