Political noise: A threat to your mental health

Recent psychological research links the constant consumption of news to high levels of stress and poor emotional well-being

Supporters of former president Donald Trump gather near Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 1, 2023.
Supporters of former president Donald Trump gather near Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 1, 2023.GIORGIO VIERA (AFP)

There is a price for incessantly following politics: your mental health. An investigation from the University of Toronto, published by the American Psychological Association, links the constant consumption of political news to greater stress and deterioration of the emotional well-being. The authors of the study point out that a strategy to manage this is to completely disconnect from current news, although this, in turn, can also affect a person’s drive to participate in political activity. There is a crossroads between personal health and political awareness, explained psychologist and researcher Brett Ford in the study; “a trade-off between being well and doing good.”

“Our findings show that the political is very much personal—a pattern with powerful consequences for people’s daily lives,” the study concluded, adding that, more generally, “by demonstrating how political events personally impact the average citizen, including their psychological and physical health,” their research “reveals the far-reaching impact politicians have beyond the formal powers endowed unto them.”

The researchers found that thinking about daily political events evoked negative emotions in participants, even when they were not asked to think about negative political events. Those who experienced more negative emotions related to politics reported having worse physical and psychological health on average, but also greater motivation to act in political causes and volunteer. “In a way, this is a trade-off between individual wellness and collective wellness,” reflected Ford.

The researchers carried out the study after they realized how political noise had completely intoxicated their daily lives. Matthew Feinberg, also from the University of Toronto and co-author of the paper, refers to the phenomenon as a permanent visceral obsession that goes beyond elections or major events. The field in which they work is related to the psychology of behavior and emotions, which is why they devised the study to find out if that was something more than just a perception. “Modern politics—its daily controversies, incivility and ineptitude—puts a regular emotional burden on Americans,” stated Feinberg.

Mobile hyper-politicization

In order to measure the cycle of hyper-politicization—fueled by the constant consumption of news on our mobile phones—the authors designed the study with four different experiments. The first two samples were obtained from a group of approximately 1,000 American citizens (Democrats, Republicans, independents and unaffiliated) who recorded their emotions in a journal every night in an emotion tracking app, which showed that normal exposure to politics could even cause “chronic stress” in the participants.

In a follow-up experiment with another group of 1,000 subjects that spanned several weeks, the authors showed them sequences of biased news shows, such as the left-leaning Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, or Tucker Carlson’s monologues on Fox News, more aligned with the Trumpist Republicans. The scientists were surprised to discover that even when the contents they saw coincided with their ideology, the subjects reported a deteriorated state of mind. In the paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the authors note that the prevalence of discomfort was unexpected, as they “did not specifically ask about negative events.”

One section of the study details the strategies that the participants carry out to regulate their emotions after a moment of stress or discomfort. Just like one looks the other way during a scary movie, explains Feinberg, in this case they laugh to de-dramatize what they see, or reevaluate the information to make it seem less negative. These are classic psychological mechanisms to cope with negative emotions, a way of overcoming stressful situations. However, to the authors, this poses a dilemma for activists, who “need people to not reduce those [negative] emotions,” and may even want to increase them.

Far from encouraging political apathy, the authors stress the importance of contemplating the mental health costs of political commitment, as well as finding tools “to manage the chronic stress of day-to-day politics while also maintaining the motivation to engage with politics when needed,” stated Ford. The passive consumption of political noise negatively affects mental health. To Feinberg, one thing is clear: “If the information doesn’t drive you to act to change things, why sacrifice your well-being for nothing?”

Escaping the news

The conclusions of the study are not surprising to Sílvia Majó-Vázquez, from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, in the United Kingdom. The researcher (not related to this work) applauded the fact that the new data provide a “psychological perspective on why people stop reading the news.” Majó-Vázquez explained that this mechanism has been studied in communication for a long time, as shown by the publication of the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2021, which shows that among the main factors that make people avoid the news was the fact that they lead to negative moods, exhaustion and arguments.

Professor Ana Sofía Cardenal from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, in Spain, stated that “the qualitative and experimental part of the work about mental health should be taken seriously.” For Cardenal, an expert in comparative politics and public opinion behavior, the link between the drop in consumption and the political polarization is evident, but it also has to do with overwhelming events such as the Covid-19 pandemic or climate change, in which the public cannot intervene.

She considered the results “reasonable” and explains that the comparative perspective of the work provides information about something known as selective news avoidance. Cardenal crossed the information from five different countries to analyze this complex phenomenon and highlights a key point: “In the investigations we have carried out, there are people who say they avoid information, but when you measure their consumption you see that they actually don’t.”

She attributed this paradox to the fact that perhaps those who consume the most news—a highly motivated and biased minority—are precisely those who claim to avoid them, while in reality they only avoid those that do not match their preferences. In an environment like the current one, in which there is an excess of information, Cardenal explains that it is precisely these people who look for the most distorted information. “It is one of the costs of activism that the authors mention.”

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