My grandma used to buy those supermarket “rags” in the checkout line. The over-the-top headlines and doctored photographs were just barely plausible enough you could imagine stories titled “Santa found frozen in chunks of ice,” “Jesus action figure heals the sick” and myriad references to Elvis being alive and well long after his demise could be true, even though deep down inside you knew it was all fiction. If you ran into someone who believed one of those tall tales was true, you likely gave them a raised eyebrow and a wider-than-normal berth on the sidewalk.
Today, thanks to the magic of the internet and the human capacity to suspend disbelief when we want to agree with something or gain approval, the equivalent of those tabloid stories are being touted as Gospel truth, and often angrily defended.
Is it possible we’ve grown so accustomed to being outraged now we’re addicted to it?
Dr. David Berry’s article on addiction this week talks about how dopamine — the “feel good” brain chemical — is a big component in addiction. We usually associate dopamine with positive emotions, but this potent neurotransmitter can also be released when we get angry, particularly when we feel our anger is justified.
Corporations are cognizant of this. Talk radio figured it out years ago, with “shock jocks” who said outrageous things on air. They were so shocking, more listeners tuned in, which in turn meant more leverage for advertising sales. Enter the internet. Literally anyone can be a “shock jock” now, with a YouTube channel or a Twitter account. If you’ve already got a platform, or a built-in audience (professional politicians and other paid performers), the more extreme and ridiculous you can be, the more campaign donations or sponsorship contracts you can get.
The entire system of clickbait headlines, online dating sites, and the mysterious algorithms that govern social media sites are designed to keep us on their sites longer and to keep us engaged in whatever way possible. The longer you watch that crazy dude on YouTube, the more likely you are to see one of the ads on his site, and when you click on it, he makes a little bit of money. Enough clicks and he makes a lot of money.
Apparently funny cat videos and happy pictures of weddings and new babies don’t generate enough traffic to keep corporate bank accounts ballooning. But angry, unhappy, outraged people provide a whole new source of supply. We see something that infuriates us, or shocks us, or causes some kind of visceral reaction, and we get a little shot of dopamine. We “like” or “share” or comment, and someone else likes our like, or responds back with something that makes us even more outraged, and we get another little dose of dopamine — a “reward” for a behavior.
As with all addictions, eventually we need more stimulation to get the same effect. So we gravitate toward more extreme, more shocking, more outrageous posts and websites, reinforcing the behavior.
Where does it end? When we, the lab rats we’ve been reduced to being, stop pushing the lever on command? When we relocate the part of the brain that is used for critical thinking? When we start realizing we’re being manipulated and used by giant corporations? Will that happen? Maybe.
Meanwhile, living in a state of constant outrage is an unsatisfying and unproductive way to live that probably has terrible long-term consequences on the body.
Maybe it’s time to step away from the machine. Or at the bare minimum, become aware of the outrage being thrown at us and start curating what we receive with more care and caution.
By NIKI TURNER – firstname.lastname@example.org