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The Age of Over-Reaction

Mal Fletcher
Posted 02 July 2010
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The massive oil spill off America's Gulf Coast, the swine flu outbreak that never happened and the ongoing saga of football's World Cup are stories that may seem to have little in common.

Yet, in some respects each serves as a powerful lesson about our culture's growing propensity for emotional over-reaction.

Having spent the last month on a speaking tour of Australia and the US, I've watched World Cup matches with people of different cultures. There's no doubt the game inspires powerful emotions the world over, even in nations not normally known for their love of soccer.

World sporting events offer a form of catharsis, a diversion from the troubles of things like global financial crises. Letting off steam for a few weeks during a sporting tournament is a positive way of expressing latent patriotism.

Events like the World Cup provide an opportunity for people to tap into a positive form of tribalism, a chance to reflect on the key strengths of their national psyche, free for the most part of racism or xenophobia.

Yet, at times, reactions to uncalled goals and other refereeing errors border on mild hysteria. Even normally measured newspapers overreact, stoking a sense of outrage. It's all very entertaining, of course, and sells many papers, but hyping emotions hardly adds more light to the heat.

Meanwhile, one story that actually warrants the oft-overuse words 'crisis' and 'emergency' sees the oil spill moving further West along the US coast. Hundreds of thousands of people are affected and will be for decades to come, both within the region's huge fishing industries and its normally vibrant tourist industry.

I'm writing this in Los Angeles and even here, on the opposite side of the continent, people feel outraged by the damage that one foreign-owned multi-national is doing to their national ecology and economy.

Early in the piece, President Obama reacted to the crisis with measured, even muted tones. Many Americans chided him for not displaying enough emotion. His statements seemed to them to be steely and thoughtful, but lacking in urgency and anger.

In one NBC survey, his approval ratings plummeted to 45% on the back of the crisis. His TV appearances just didn't show enough over-reaction for an audience that's fed a constant diet of hot-under-the-collar petulance, on everything from reality TV to Sunday morning political programmes.

This despite the fact that there is relatively little a political leader can do in the face of such industrial profligacy.

Across the pond in the UK, figures released this week show that the UK government spent £1.2 billion on preparations for a possible swine flu outbreak that didn't eventuate.

Health authorities in the UK expected that up to 65,000 people would become infected. In the end, thankfully, only 474 people were infected. Yet many people have endured the after-effects of an injection they didn't need to have.

Yes, it is better to overdo preparations than to be caught on the hop, especially when lives are at stake. But the scale of the difference between predictions and eventualities suggests that this was an example of over-reaction on a massive scale.

Decisions affecting many thousands of people were made on the basis of threats rather than facts.

Emotions associated with a sporting event and those linked to environmental disasters or the threat of pandemic diseases are different in scale, but what they produce in the human experience is the same. According to a number of recent studies, we may be getting too enamoured with emotional over-reaction, and this is changing the way our brains work.

In her new book Stop Overreacting, Judith Siegel uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show how the brain diverges from its normal functions during an emotional over-reaction.

In a normal reaction, the areas of the brain responsible for judgement and self-awareness light up at the set at the same time as those responsible for fight-or-flight reactions.

However, when we overreact, only the lower function areas fire up, which means we're in danger of acting without proper judgement.

Common sense already suggests that this is true. Yet some neuroscientists express serious concern that a cultural trend toward emotional immaturity, combined with rapid response technology, will permanently alter the way our brains process events.

Some predict that we may soon become a generation in need of empathy and wisdom, but unable to express either.

Some academics lay at least part of the blame for our shortening emotional fuse squarely at the feet of the media, and in particular reality television.

"People can be seduced into thinking that (overreacting) is the most common way of reacting to life, when it's not," says Rodney Carter, a professor of communication studies and government at the University of Texas.

"Reality television has hyped all the emotions. You can't just be happy. You have to be ecstatic. You can't be upset. You have to be violently angry."

In a world of reality TV, Americans may be reacting to "No Drama Obama" because, even at a subconscious level, they are conditioned to look for over-reaction. Even TV political pundits are turning into two-dimensional cartoon figures, whom producers encourage to argue rather than debate, to provide more theatrical viewing.

In a study conducted by Young University in Utah, 120 hours of programming were reviewed, using five reality shows and five non-reality shows. The research found an average of 52 acts of aggression each hour on reality TV, and 33 per hour for non-reality programming.

The American version of The Apprentice, starring the inimitable Donald Trump, topped the list with 85 act of verbal aggression each hour. American Idol had 57 aggressive acts per hour.

Even while we are aware that some TV is over-the-top, it may leave us on a subconscious level feeling that the world is a more course and threatening place than it actually is.

When Marshall McCluhan declared in the 1960s that "in the age of TV, the medium is become the message", he may not have foreseen how much TV would come to shape our emotions. He did, though, understand that TV is a "hot" medium, playing more to emotion then to the intellect.

Some sections of the media are helping to produce a culture in which we are meaner to one another and more prone to think that instant emotional over-reaction is preferable to more considered and proactive responses to problems.

Life's biggest problems, whether on the international, national or individual level, are best solved through measured reflection. Emotion is vital to our decision-making, but only when channelled properly, so that frustration becomes a motivator for change and anger an engine for positive action.

In an age of data-overflow, wisdom is as vital as information - often moreso, if we are to discern the difference between threats and facts and then respond constructively.

Copryight Mal Fletcher, 2010

What’s your view?

Are we over-reacting to problems more often these days?



Keywords: h1n1 | swine flu | oil spill | bp | world cup | soccer

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