Tag Archives: negative

A Case For Less News


I find myself agreeing with columnist Oliver Burkeman over at the Guardian that we need to carefully manage our access to the 24/7 news cycle. Our news media has learned to thrive on hyperbole and sensationalism, which — let’s face it — tends to be mostly negative. This unending and unnerving stream of gloom and doom tends to make us believe that we are surrounded by more badness than there actually is. I have to believe that most of the 7 billion+ personal stories each day that we could be hearing about — however mundane — are likely to not be bad or evil. So, while it may not be wise to switch off cable or satellite news completely, we should consider a more measured, and balanced, approach to the media monster.

From the Guardian:

A few days before Christmas, feeling rather furtive about it, I went on a media diet: I quietly unsubscribed from, unfollowed or otherwise disconnected from several people and news sources whose output, I’d noticed, did nothing but bring me down. This felt like defeat. I’ve railed against the popular self-help advice that you should “give up reading the news” on the grounds that it’s depressing and distracting: if bad stuff’s happening out there, my reasoning goes, I don’t want to live in an artificial bubble of privilege and positivity; I want to face reality. But at some point during 2015’s relentless awfulness, it became unignorable: the days when I read about another mass shooting, another tale of desperate refugees or anything involving the words “Donald Trump” were the days I’d end up gloomier, tetchier, more attention-scattered. Needless to say, I channelled none of this malaise into making the planet better. I just got grumbly about the world, like a walking embodiment of that bumper-sticker: “Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?”

One problem is that merely knowing that the news focuses disproportionately on negative and scary stories doesn’t mean you’ll adjust your emotions accordingly. People like me scorn Trump and the Daily Mail for sowing unwarranted fears. We know that the risk of dying in traffic is vastly greater than from terrorism. We may even know that US gun crime is in dramatic decline, that global economic inequality is decreasing, or that there’s not much evidence that police brutality is on the rise. (We just see more of it, thanks to smartphones.) But, apparently, the part of our minds that knows these facts isn’t the same part that decides whether to feel upbeat or despairing. It’s entirely possible to know things are pretty good, yet feel as if they’re terrible.

This phenomenon has curious parallels with the “busyness epidemic”. Data on leisure time suggests we’re not much busier than we were, yet we feel busier, partly because – for “knowledge workers”, anyway – there’s no limit to the number of emails we can get, the demands that can be made of us, or the hours of the day we can be in touch with the office. Work feels infinite, but our capacities are finite, therefore overwhelm is inevitable. Similarly, technology connects us to more and more of the world’s suffering, of which there’s an essentially infinite amount, until feeling steamrollered by it becomes structurally inevitable – not a sign that life’s getting worse. And the consequences go beyond glumness. They include “compassion fade”, the well-studied effect whereby our urge to help the unfortunate declines as their numbers increase.

Read the whole column here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

The Killer Joke and the Killer Idea

Some jokes can make you laugh until you cry. Some jokes can kill. And, research shows that thoughts alone can have equally devastating consequences as well.

From BBC:

Beware the scaremongers. Like a witch doctor’s spell, their words might be spreading modern plagues.

We have long known that expectations of a malady can be as dangerous as a virus. In the same way that voodoo shamans could harm their victims through the power of suggestion, priming someone to think they are ill can often produce the actual symptoms of a disease. Vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and even death, could be triggered through belief alone. It’s called the “nocebo effect”.

But it is now becoming clear just how easily those dangerous beliefs can spread through gossip and hearsay – with potent effect. It may be the reason why certain houses seem cursed with illness, and why people living near wind turbines report puzzling outbreaks of dizziness, insomnia and vomiting. If you have ever felt “fluey” after a vaccination, believed your cell phone was giving you a headache, or suffered an inexplicable food allergy, you may have also fallen victim to a nocebo jinx. “The nocebo effect shows the brain’s power,” says Dimos Mitsikostas, from Athens Naval Hospital in Greece. “And we cannot fully explain it.”

A killer joke

Doctors have long known that beliefs can be deadly – as demonstrated by a rather nasty student prank that went horribly wrong. The 18th Century Viennese medic, Erich Menninger von Lerchenthal, describes how students at his medical school picked on a much-disliked assistant. Planning to teach him a lesson, they sprung upon him before announcing that he was about to be decapitated. Blindfolding him, they bowed his head onto the chopping block, before dropping a wet cloth on his neck. Convinced it was the kiss of a steel blade, the poor man “died on the spot”.

While anecdotes like this abound, modern researchers had mostly focused on the mind’s ability to heal, not harm – the “placebo effect”, from the Latin for “I will please”. Every clinical trial now randomly assigns patients to either a real drug, or a placebo in the form of an inert pill. The patient doesn’t know which they are taking, and even those taking the inert drug tend to show some improvement – thanks to their faith in the treatment.

Yet alongside the benefits, people taking placebos often report puzzling side effects – nausea, headaches, or pain – that are unlikely to come from an inert tablet. The problem is that people in a clinical trial are given exactly the same health warnings whether they are taking the real drug or the placebo – and somehow, the expectation of the symptoms can produce physical manifestations in some placebo takers. “It’s a consistent phenomenon, but medicine has never really dealt with it,” says Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard Medical School.

Over the last 10 years, doctors have shown that this nocebo effect – Latin for “I will harm” – is very common. Reviewing the literature, Mitsikostas has so far documented strong nocebo effects in many treatments for headache, multiple sclerosis, and depression. In trials for Parkinson’s disease, as many as 65% report adverse events as a result of their placebo. “And around one out of 10 treated will drop out of a trial because of nocebo, which is pretty high,” he says.

Although many of the side-effects are somewhat subjective – like nausea or pain – nocebo responses do occasionally show up as rashes and skin complaints, and they are sometimes detectable on physiological tests too. “It’s unbelievable – they are taking sugar pills and when you measure liver enzymes, they are elevated,” says Mitsikostas.

And for those who think these side effects are somehow “deliberately” willed or imagined, measures of nerve activity following nocebo treatment have shown that the spinal cord begins responding to heightened painbefore conscious deliberation would even be possible.

Consider the near fatal case of “Mr A”, reported by doctor Roy Reeves in 2007. Mr A was suffering from depression when he consumed a whole bottle of pills. Regretting his decision, Mr A rushed to ER, and promptly collapsed at reception. It looked serious; his blood pressure had plummeted, and he was hyperventilating; he was immediately given intravenous fluids. Yet blood tests could find no trace of the drug in his system. Four hours later, another doctor arrived to inform Reeves that the man had been in the placebo arm of a drugs trial; he had “overdosed” on sugar tablets. Upon hearing the news, the relieved Mr A soon recovered.

We can never know whether the nocebo effect would have actually killed Mr A, though Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin Medical School thinks it is certainly possible. He has scanned subjects’ brains as they undergo nocebo suggestions, which seems to set off a chain of activation in the hypothalamus, and the pituitary and adrenal glands – areas that deal with extreme threats to our body. If your fear and belief were strong enough, the resulting cocktail of hormones could be deadly, he says.

Read the entire story here.

Moist and Other Words We Hate

Some words give us the creeps, they raise the hair on back of our heads, they make us squirm and give us an internal shudder. “Moist” is such as word.

From Slate:

The George Saunders story “Escape From Spiderhead,” included in his much praised new book Tenth of December, is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. The sprawling, futuristic tale delves into several potentially unnerving topics: suicide, sex, psychotropic drugs. It includes graphic scenes of self-mutilation. It employs the phrases “butt-squirm,” “placental blood,” and “thrusting penis.” At one point, Saunders relates a conversation between two characters about the application of medicinal cream to raw, chafed genitals.

Early in the story, there is a brief passage in which the narrator, describing a moment of postcoital amorousness, says, “Everything seemed moist, permeable, sayable.” This sentence doesn’t really stand out from the rest—in fact, it’s one of the less conspicuous sentences in the story. But during a recent reading of “Escape From Spiderhead” in Austin, Texas, Saunders says he encountered something unexpected. “I’d texted a cousin of mine who was coming with her kids (one of whom is in high school) just to let her know there was some rough language,” he recalls. “Afterwards she said she didn’t mind fu*k, but hated—wait for it—moist. Said it made her a little physically ill. Then I went on to Jackson, read there, and my sister Jane was in the audience—and had the same reaction. To moist.”

Mr. Saunders, say hello to word aversion.

It’s about to get really moist in here. But first, some background is in order. The phenomenon of word aversion—seemingly pedestrian, inoffensive words driving some people up the wall—has garnered increasing attention over the past decade or so. In a recent post on Language Log, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman defined the concept as “a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”

So we’re not talking about hating how some people say laxadaisical instead of lackadaisical or wanting to vigorously shake teenagers who can’t avoid using the word like between every other word of a sentence. If you can’t stand the word tax because you dislike paying taxes, that’s something else, too. (When recently asked about whether he harbored any word aversions, Harvard University cognition and education professor Howard Gardner offered up webinar, noting that these events take too much time to set up, often lack the requisite organization, and usually result in “a singularly unpleasant experience.” All true, of course, but that sort of antipathy is not what word aversion is all about.)

Word aversion is marked by strong reactions triggered by the sound, sight, and sometimes even the thought of certain words, according to Liberman. “Not to the things that they refer to, but to the word itself,” he adds. “The feelings involved seem to be something like disgust.”

Participants on various message boards and online forums have noted serious aversions to, for instance, squab, cornucopia, panties, navel, brainchild, crud, slacks, crevice, and fudge, among numerous others. Ointment, one Language Log reader noted in 2007, “has the same mouth-feel as moist, yet it’s somehow worse.” In response to a 2009 post on the subject by Ben Zimmer, one commenter confided: “The word meal makes me wince. Doubly so when paired with hot.” (Nineteen comments later, someone agreed, declaring: “Meal is a repulsive word.”) In many cases, real-life word aversions seem no less bizarre than when the words mattress and tin induce freak-outs on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (The Monty Python crew knew a thing or two about annoying sounds.)

Jason Riggle, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago, says word aversions are similar to phobias. “If there is a single central hallmark to this, it’s probably that it’s a more visceral response,” he says. “The [words] evoke nausea and disgust rather than, say, annoyance or moral outrage. And the disgust response is triggered because the word evokes a highly specific and somewhat unusual association with imagery or a scenario that people would typically find disgusting—but don’t typically associate with the word.” These aversions, Riggle adds, don’t seem to be elicited solely by specific letter combinations or word characteristics. “If we collected enough of [these words], it might be the case that the words that fall in this category have some properties in common,” he says. “But it’s not the case that words with those properties in common always fall in the category.”

So back to moist. If pop cultural references, Internet blog posts, and social media are any indication, moist reigns supreme in its capacity to disgust a great many of us. Aversion to the word has popped up on How I Met Your Mother and Dead Like Me. VH1 declared that using the word moist is enough to make a man “undateable.” In December, Huffington Post’s food section published a piece suggesting five alternatives to the word moist so the site could avoid its usage when writing about various cakes. Readers of The New Yorker flocked to Facebook and Twitter to choose moist as the one word they would most like to be eliminated from the English language. In a survey of 75 Mississippi State University students from 2009, moist placed second only to vomit as the ugliest word in the English language. In a 2011 follow-up survey of 125 students, moist pulled into the ugly-word lead—vanquishing a greatest hits of gross that included phlegm, ooze, mucus, puke, scab, and pus. Meanwhile, there are 7,903 people on Facebook who like the “interest” known as “I Hate the Word Moist.” (More than 5,000 other Facebook users give the thumbs up to three different moist-hatred Facebook pages.)

Being grossed out by the word moist is not beyond comprehension. It’s squishy-seeming, and, to some, specifically evocative of genital regions and undergarments. These qualities are not unusual when it comes to word aversion. Many hated words refer to “slimy things, or gross things, or names for garments worn in potentially sexual areas, or anything to do with food, or suckling, or sexual overtones,” says Riggle. But other averted words are more confounding, notes Liberman. “There is a list of words that seem to have sexual connotations that are among the words that elicit this kind of reaction—moist being an obvious one,” he says. “But there are other words like luggage, and pugilist, and hardscrabble, and goose pimple, and squab, and so on, which I guess you could imagine phonic associations between those words and something sexual, but it certainly doesn’t seem obvious.”

So then the question becomes: What is it about certain words that makes certain people want to hurl?

Riggle thinks the phenomenon may be dependent on social interactions and media coverage. “Given that, as far back as the aughts, there were comedians making jokes about hating [moist], people who were maybe prone to have that kind of reaction to one of these words, surely have had it pointed out to them that it’s an icky word,” he says. “So, to what extent is it really some sort of innate expression that is independently arrived at, and to what extent is it sort of socially transmitted? Disgust is really a very social emotion.”

And in an era of YouTube, Twitter, Vine, BuzzFeed top-20 gross-out lists, and so on, trends, even the most icky ones, spread fast. “There could very well be a viral aspect to this, where either through the media or just through real-world personal connections, the reaction to some particular word—for example, moist—spreads,” says Liberman. “But that’s the sheerest speculation.”

Words do have the power to disgust and repulse, though—that, at least, has been demonstrated in scholarly investigations. Natasha Fedotova, a Ph.D. student studying psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently conducted research examining the extent to which individuals connect the properties of an especially repellent thing to the word that represents it. “For instance,” she says, “the word rat, which stands for a disgusting animal, can contaminate an edible object [such as water] if the two touch. This result cannot be explained solely in terms of the tendency of the word to act as a reminder of the disgusting entity because the effect depends on direct physical contact with the word.” Put another way, if you serve people who are grossed out by rats Big Macs on plates that have the word rat written on them, some people will be less likely to want to eat the portion of the burger that touched the word. Humans, in these instances, go so far as to treat gross-out words “as though they can transfer negative properties through physical contact,” says Fedotova.

Product marketers and advertisers are, not surprisingly, well aware of these tendencies, even if they haven’t read about word aversion (and even though they’ve been known to slip up on the word usage front from time to time, to disastrous effect). George Tannenbaum, an executive creative director at the advertising agency R/GA, says those responsible for creating corporate branding strategies know that consumers are an easily skeeved-out bunch. “Our job as communicators and agents is to protect brands from their own linguistic foibles,” he says. “Obviously there are some words that are just ugly sounding.”

Sometimes, because the stakes are so high, Tannenbaum says clients can be risk averse to an extreme. He recalled working on an ad for a health club that included the word pectoral, which the client deemed to be dangerously close to the word pecker. In the end, after much consideration, they didn’t want to risk any pervy connotations. “We took it out,” he says.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image courtesy of keep-calm-o-matic.