Have you noticed that the media uses a standard formula when covering school shootings?
Only in the beginning do they report the Who, What Where and When of the tragedy. Immediately after reporting the news, they focus on the individual victims and their families, focusing on the emotional suffering they are experiencing.
At this point, the media is no longer reporting news and have shifted into influencing the emotions of viewers. Witnessing the emotions of others creates the sensation of those same emotions in us.
Emotions are contagious.
Back in 1991, Italian researchers were exploring how the brain controls muscles. They had implanted sensors into the motor cortex of a monkey and connected a buzzer that would go off when go off when motor neurons fired causing a muscle to move. One day a researcher returned from lunch with an ice cream cone. A buzz indicated that the monkeys neurons had fired, but the monkey had not moved.
This marks the discovery of “mirror neurons.”
We all understand that our thoughts drive our behaviors. Something not quite so apparent is our ability to predict the thoughts of others by observing their behavior. If we see someone intently scanning the ground, we could infer they are looking for something they might have dropped.
We also can infer emotions. When we see someone crying we understand that they are thinking something that is causing emotional distress. If we know what has recently transpired we form highly accurate assumptions about the cause of their distress. Humans begin to demonstrate the ability to infer emotion from simple observations at about the age of three. By five they are experts.
Our emotions, whether positive or negative affect those around us, and in turn, their emotions affect our emotions.
This is why television shows used to feature laugh tracks and now include studio audiences. The happy enthusiasm of a crowd having a good time influences us to have an even better time than we would otherwise.
This is such an automatic and ingrained human property that we are not aware of it until we think about it. In fact is such a basic feature of being human that we sometimes assign emotional intent to inanimate objects.
Matthew Lieberman, in his excellent book, Social, recounts a demonstration in which an animation of two triangles and a solid circle move around a square enclosure. People observing assigned emotional intent to the movements of these inanimate objects. It seemed the triangles were bullying the circle, even though the objects were actually moving randomly.
In his now famous book Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell tells us about a fascinating experiment by Howard Friedman in which he measured the ability of people to impart emotions to others. Some people are naturally better at influencing the emotions of others. We refer to these people as charismatic, and they often attain leadership roles when working with others.
Friedman then paired individual high scorers with two lower scoring people and asked the three to sit in a small room without talking for two minutes. After the two minutes, subjects described their mood in detail.
The results indicated that the charismatic high scorers influenced the mood of the others. If they were a little depressed so were the others; if they were happy and in good spirits, the others reported they were as well.
Our ability to sense and influence the emotions of others is very strong and at the same time very subtle. You do not really notice it when it is happening.
In his amazing book Human, neurologist Michael Gazzaniga describes couples the experience of volunteering for an experiment exploring how physical pain can be transmitted form one person to another. While one person watched, a harmless, but painful shock to the hand was applied while each volunteer’s brain was observed in an fMRI-imaging chamber.
Both the observer and the person receiving the shock showed activity in the part of the brain that processes emotional perception of pain. Related fMRI studies by Matthew Lieberman demonstrated that social pain — emotional pain brought on by the behaviors of others — is process through the same brain structure.
So it seems that Bill Clintons much quoted and maligned, “I feel your pain” comment from 1992 really does have an element of scientific truth.
Observing someone in emotional distress feels very similar to observing someone in physical pain.
When we observe others in emotional distress, we experience the same emotions they experience. The more personally and intimately those emotions are express to us the stronger the affect. It is one thing have an emotional experience when reading about a plane crash, but more emotionally intense to see images of the wreckage, more emotional still when we see images of grieving relatives and even more so when we also hear their cries.
“One death is a tragedy; a thousand deaths is a statistic.”
Let us get back to how the media reports shooting tragedies.
Right after the Parkland shooting, I spent most of the day turning NPR on and off. All they could talk about was the emotion carnage following the shooting. Nothing about international events, Nothing about the economy, nothing about escalating violence in the mid-east.
When I turned on NPR to find out about the looming trade war with China I heard:
“How did it feel when you were told your child had been brutally murdered?”
I turned off the radio. It was just too upsetting. I’d try again an hour or so later.
“Tell us what it was like when your saw your best friend shot down right in front of you.”
Off with NPR.
NPR even schedule special events so people could subject themselves to more emotional abuse.
“Tune in at seven o’clock for live eye witness accounts by the survivors of the Parkland shooting.”
I was shocked they would do such a thing, but maybe I should not have been.
Note how the media personalizes everything they can. They assail viewers with close up family pictures of smiling victims, thrust microphones in the faces of relatives in their most grief stricken moments, and maintain a constant assault on viewer emotions with endless loops of victim biographies.
They know how this affects their audience. They know how difficult is for us to turn away from others in need. They know there is nothing we can do, and that because of that we can hardly resist turning away from human suffering.
It is because we have empathy. The ability to share in the pain of others. Something the media does not seem to possess. If they did, they would not go to the extremes they do to inflict that pain on their viewers.
These people know exactly what they are doing. The major news networks have statistical experts monitoring data from all their TV, radio, and internet traffic looking for ways to increase the number of people accessing their streams.
More people attending their broadcasts means more they can charge advertisers who want the widest possible exposure for their products and services.
That is not all.
There are social and political goals at work also.
When our brain becomes emotional, it is no longer logical. Our brains cannot simultaneously hold strong emotions and logical cognitive function at the same time. In one of my previous articles on math anxiety, I go into detail about this. During times of emotional stress, the need to scan the environment for dangers overwhelms our working memory.
This is why people and organizations with agendas come out of the woodwork during items of crisis. The best chance of success in gaining approval or support for a plan is when people are not thinking clearly in the aftermath of a tragedy.
Rahm Emmanuel gets credit for the phrase: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
This is why the aftermath of tragic shootings is always followed by calls for gun control from the gun control advocates, calls for more funding for mental health from mental health advocates, calls for armed teachers from the pro-gun groups, and calls for armed guards from police and security organizations.
So how do we manage our lives during these media inspired emotional rollercoaster events?
First, simply know what is happening. The media is targeting you for emotional manipulation. They manipulate your emotions in such a way as to compromise your cognitive functioning. The immediate goal seems to be to keep up a high level of engagement with their websites and broadcasts.
If you know their goal is to keep you engaged the response should be to limit engagement. I am not suggesting ignoring tragic events, but rather taking steps to preserve our emotional state when they occur. We feel bad enough just knowing a tragedy occurred; it services no one except the media and organizations with agendas to focus our unblinking attention to tragedy.
So turn off the radio and the TV whenever something upsetting comes on.
We have something psychologists call agency. Agency means that we are capable of making decisions and carrying out actions that influences what occurs in the world. We can decide to turn off the radio or a TV or look away from a computer screen. We are not at the mercy of whatever others push into our consciousness.
We are not bits of flotsam and jetsam tossed about on heaving seas over which we have no control.
If you can insulate yourself from the emotional manipulation of the media, you might try subjecting the solutions offered by the agenda setters a logical test.
“Would that proposed solution have prevented this tragedy?”
Chances are it would not.
The guns used in school shootings are usually either stolen or misappropriated from friends or family, so background checks and closing gun show loopholes would have no effect.
Shooters are very rarely mentally ill. In fact, people with mental illnesses have a lower rate of violence than those who are not.
Armed teachers and guards might mitigate these disasters, but at the same time increase the chances of injury through accidental discharges. However, most shooters intend to die by either their own hand or someone else while taking with them as many others as possible, this is not an ideal solution either. In fact it plays right into their hands.
When the next school shooting occurs, (and there will be a next), take measures to protect your emotional self from the excesses of the media. They will play you like a puppet on a string if they can.
Also keep in mind that more we can insulate ourselves from the abuses of the media the more able we will be to find a real solution to this tragic problem.
I think if know of a way to end school shootings. It has nothing to do with guns or mental health or armed teachers. Instead, it focuses on the root cause of school shootings — the students themselves.
Thanks for reading.
Here are the sources consulted for this article:
Gladwell, M. (2002). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference (1st Back Bay pbk. ed.). Boston: Back Bay Books.
Gazzaniga, M. S. (2008). Human: The science behind what makes us unique (1st ed.). New York: Ecco.
Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. New York: Crown.