Commentary

The News Cycle, Our Attention Span -- And That Oscar Slap

If your social media feed is like mine, it was burning up this Monday with the slap heard around the world. Was Will Smith displaying toxic masculinity? Was “it was a joke” sufficient defense for Chris Rock’s staggering lack of ability to read the room? Was Smith’s acceptance speech legendary or just really, really lame?

More than a few people just sighed and chalked it up as another scandal for the beleaguered awards show.  Here’s one post I saw from a friend on Facebook: “People smiling and applauding as if an assault never happened is probably Hollywood in a nutshell.”

The world was fascinated by what happened. The slap trended number one on Twitter through Sunday night and Monday morning, and the topic dominated all of CNN’s top trending stories on Monday morning.

You would have thought there was nothing happening in the world that was more important than one person slapping another. Not the world teetering on the edge of a potential world war. Not a global economy that can’t seem to get itself in gear. Not a worldwide pandemic that just won’t go away and has just pushed Shanghai -- a city of 30 million -- back into a total lockdown.

And the specter of an onrushing climactic disaster? Nary a peep in Monday’s news cycle.

We commonly acknowledge -- when we do take the time to stop and think about it -- that our news cycles have about the same attention span as a four-year-old on Christmas morning. No matter what we have in our hands, there’s always something brighter and shinier waiting for us under the tree. We typically attribute this to the declining state of journalism. But we -- the consumers of news -- are the ones that continually ignore the stories that matter in favor of gossipy tidbits.

The slap is just the latest example of this phenomenon. It’s nothing more than human nature. But there is a troubling trend here, accelerated by the impact of social media. This is definitely something we should pay attention to.

The Confounding Nature of Complexity

Just last week, I talked about something psychologists call a locus of control. In times of stress, unpredictability or upheaval, our own perceived span of control tends to narrow to the things we have confidence we can manage. Our ability to cope draws inward, essentially circling the wagons around the last vestiges of our capability to direct our own circumstances. 

I believe the same is true with our ability to focus attention. The more complex the world gets, the more we tend to focus on things that we can easily wrap our minds around.

A study from Finland’s Abo Akademi University showed that anxiety reduces the ability of the brain to focus on tasks. Complex, unpredictable situations naturally raise our level of anxiety, leading us to retreat to things we don’t have to work too hard to understand.

The irony here is, the more we’re aware of complex and threatening news stories, the more we go right past them to things like the Smith-Rock slap. It’s like catnip to a brain that’s trying to retreat from the real news because we can’t cope with it.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of journalism, it’s more a limitation of our own brains. On Monday morning, CNN offered plenty of coverage dealing with the new airstrikes in Ukraine, Biden’s inflammatory remarks about Putin, and the restriction of LGBTQ awareness in the classrooms of Florida. But none of those stories were trending.

False Familiarity

It’s not just that the news is too complex for us to handle that made the Rock/Smith story so compelling. Our built-in social instincts also made it irresistible.

Evolution has equipped us with highly attuned social antennae. Humans are herders -- and when you travel in a herd, your ability to survive is highly dependent on picking up signals from your fellow herders.

For generations, these instincts were essential when we had to keep tabs on the people closest to us. But with the rise of celebrity culture in the last century, we now apply those same instincts to people we think we know. We pass judgement on the faces we see on TV and in social media. We have a voracious appetite for gossip about the super-rich and famous.

No Foul, No Harm?

That’s the one-two punch (sorry, I had to go there) that made the little Oscar ruckus such a hot news item. But what’s the harm? It’s just a momentary distraction for the never-ending shitstorm that defines our daily existence, right?

Not quite.

The more we continually take the path of least resistance in our pursuit of information, the harder it becomes for us to process the complex concepts that make up our reality. We start relying too much on cognitive short cuts like availability bias and representative bias. In the first case, we apply whatever information we have at hand to every situation -- and in the second, we resort to substituting stereotypes and easy labels in place of trying to understand the reality of an individual or group.

Ironically, it’s exactly this tendency toward cognitive laziness that was skewered in one of Sunday night’s nominated features, Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up.”

Of course, it was ignored. As Will Smith said, sometimes, “art imitates life.”

2 comments about "The News Cycle, Our Attention Span -- And That Oscar Slap".
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  1. Ben B from Retired, March 29, 2022 at 9:41 p.m.

    Everyone was talking about the Oscars which I didn't watch since I hardly ever watch any of the movies that are up for the Oscars only watch one movie that is up for an Oscar. Boh Chris Rock & Will Smith was wrong. I don't like listening to doom & gloom 24/7 the world isn't a nice place why I like to watch sports, TV shows, etc than what is happening in the real world for a few hours.

  2. Dan Ciccone from STACKED Entertainment, March 30, 2022 at 10:42 a.m.

    War, economy, climate change - these are ongoing issues and are in the news every day. The slap was a news story and it will go away in a few days.  We won't be talking about it every day for months.


    And this is absolutely the fault of news networks - not due to the "limitations" of our tiny little brains - that's incredibly insulting.


    I spend quite a bit of time in Europe and the way they present the news and how people consume and react to news is very different than here in the U.S. and I don't think their brains are more evolved than ours.


    By and large, news network ratings have been tanking for years and it's not because the U.S. viewer demands gossip and drama - it's because that's what the networks focus on and feed us.  The fact that we are tuning out of news programming speaks to how evolved our brains are to not want to be inundated with nonsense and overt bias all day.


     

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