This post is also available in Dutch.
Reading bad news can be surprisingly habit-forming.
Reading the news is not exactly uplifting in the best of times, but the past 12 months have been… a lot. An ever-evolving pandemic that continues to threaten us, a global reckoning with the realities of systemic racism, an armed insurrection in the presumed seat of democracy, the entire Dutch government resigning in scandal, mounting evidence of a changing climate… Pretty grim stuff.
With so much going on, I find myself often checking the news, only to catch myself much later, in the same spot, still reading the news and feeling overwhelmed (and a bit hungry). And apparently I am not alone – there is even a word to describe what I’m experiencing: doomscrolling, the act of immersing ourselves in bad news for hours on end. Why do we do this?
For many of us, getting lost in the news has become a habit. Habits are actions that we do routinely and automatically, without consciously choosing to. A habit usually begins with a conscious goal, for example, to get information about the pandemic. We then take a course of action that we think will accomplish our goal, for example, by clicking on a news story with “COVID-19” in the headline. Over time, if we repeatedly click on COVID-19 headlines expecting to satisfy our goal, this action may become a habit that can operate even without the goal: we will instead have an automatic link between the stimulus (the headline) and our response (the click).
Like all habits, doomscrolling probably arises because we initially expected a benefit or reward from the action (i.e., to accomplish our goal). Unlike other habits, however, it can be difficult to imagine what could be rewarding about unpleasant news stories in the first place. Research suggests that there are indeed reasons that we may seek out negative news stories:
- Research on curiosity suggests that obtaining information is rewarding in itself, regardless of whether it is unpleasant. In some cases, negative information can offer even more benefits than positive information, for example by helping us prepare ourselves for a bad situation, or because it is more complex or thought-provoking.
- Even some seemingly negative emotions can also be rewarding. One such emotion is moral outrage, which is especially relevant to news about politics. Feeling moral outrage is even more rewarding when we share our views on social media, which allows us to broadcast our moral values and receive approval in the form of likes.
The strongest habits are formed when a behaviour is rewarded only some of the time, and consuming the news is no different: Perhaps most of the news we come across is redundant or uninformative, but we continue our search, and every once in awhile we are rewarded with a story that satisfies our curiosity.
Even though we began our search for information with the expectation or experience of a reward, one key feature of habits is that they cause us to continue the behaviour even when we are no longer receiving the expected reward. This latter point can explain why we stick with the news for hours when it makes us feel worse and worse, even after we are well-informed.
Thus, what begins with the admirable goal of staying informed can turn into a habit that can leave us feeling overwhelmed and potentially harm our mental health. What should we do? It may help to see our doomscrolling for what it really is: a bad habit.
Author: Rebecca Calcott
Buddy: Christina Isakoglou
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Translator: Wessel Hieselaar
Editor Translation: Jill Naaijen