Lesson 2/4 ➯ The Mainstream Narrative
This lesson presents the latest scientific research which shows that the mainstream narrative is having an incredibly detrimental effect on personal and global wellness. We look at the reasons why we are not learning and developing critical thinking skills, and learn the first strategy to increase health and happiness.
The Oxford Dictionary defines education as: “the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university”, but is it only in academic institutions that we are given systematic instruction on what to think?
Advertisements in newspapers, on TV, online, and on billboards across the world, constantly teach us that we are here to buy and consume. Consumerism, the message goes, will make us feel happy and create a healthy economy at the same time; yet mental and physical illness is at epidemic proportions, while the world’s economies are in ever-increasing debt.
Meanwhile, in the news, we are systematically taught about the world’s problems. We learn this somber story is the world we live in, and governments are working to fix the problems; yet climate change, war, poverty and environmental destruction keep increasing.
TV programmes, films and video games also repeat a story or narrative about the reality of the world we live in; for example, women are often portrayed as vulnerable, delicate, sexual beings, while men are dominant, violent, and the hero.
The mainstream media, then, also fit this definition of education. We are being systematically educated through TV, newspapers, video games, adverts and online with chosen messages about the reality of the world we live in which shape the way we think, feel and act.
Extensive research in neuroplasticity over the last few decades now proves that our brain formation is not fixed but rather plastic (changeable), and recent research shows that repeated positive environmental and emotional stimulation enhances cognitive function while “simultaneously enhancing vigorous longevity, health, happiness, and wellness”.
In terms of personal and global wellness, the problem with the mainstream narrative is that science clearly shows that it is a systematic environmental and emotional stimulation that is having an incredibly detrimental effect on our health and happiness.
Psychologist Mary McNaughton-Cassill has carried out several studies on the relationship between exposure to negative news and mounting psychological distress; for example her study published in 2007 found negative news media exposure increased anxiety and caused low levels of optimism.
Similarly, a 2011 study by the University of Sussex investigating the effect of negative TV news bulletins found increases in both anxiousness and sad mood, but the study also found a significant increase in the tendency to catastrophise a personal worry, stating “negatively valenced TV news programmes can exacerbate a range of personal concerns” by facilitating worrisome thought.
Meanwhile, a 2014 national poll of more than 2500 Americans by Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR found that reading, watching, or listening to negative news is identified as one of the leading causes of stress among Americans, while a 2013 study by the University of California found that repeated media exposure to a traumatic event like 9/11 can be more traumatic than being at the event in person, causing “substantial stress-related symptomatology”.
In 2005, The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia University, published an overview of research on how news coverage of traumatic events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks affect the public, explaining that repeated exposure to media coverage of tragedy seems to be associated with stress reactions, feelings of sadness, fright, anxiety, fatigue, psychological trauma-related and depressive symptoms, and the development of severe psychotic reactions.
According to Harvard:
With headlines warning us of international terrorism, global warming, and economic uncertainty, we’re all likely to be a little more anxious these days. As an everyday emotion, anxiety — the ‘fight or flight’ response — can be a good thing, prompting us to take extra precautions. But when anxiety persists in the absence of a need to fight or flee, it can not only interfere with our daily lives but also undermine our physical health.
Studies, they explain, show that prolonged anxiety is linked to the development of chronic respiratory disorders (such as asthma), gastrointestinal disorders (such as IBS), migraines and even heart disease, and a 2014 study of 376 participants over a median period of 36 months concluded that anxiety can even accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s Disease in aging adults.
More recently, a 2016 scientific review paper by The Rotman Research Institute (RRI) summarised that being subjected to chronic stress and anxiety increases the risk of “structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the PFC [prefrontal cortex], which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia”.
The mainstream narrative of fear and problems, studies show, is a story that prolongs the activation of the physiological stress response, causing a chronic pathological state that is wreaking havoc on our metabolic, neurological, cardiovascular and immune systems.
In a 2013 Tedx talk, clinical psychologist Dr. Stephen Llardi presents his findings that by the time today’s youngest Americans are in their mid-twenties, 25% will be depressed, explaining:
For many Americans, Europeans and people throughout the Western world, the stress response goes on for weeks and months and even years at a time, and when it does that, it’s incredibly toxic. The result: an epidemic of depressive illness.
But that is not all. A 2006 study by the Department of Communication Science at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that the narrative the media presents can create a feeling of distrust; negative news during a political election can cause a significant malaise effect that negatively affects, for example, the desire to actively participate in the political process.
Moreover, two experiments presented in a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that photographs of Blacks looting after Hurricane Katrina produced the “Black criminal” stereotype and support for “harmful treatment toward Black evacuees-in-need”, while exposure to sexual rap music elicited the “promiscuous Black female” stereotype and “reduced empathy for a Black pregnant woman-in-need”. In other words, exposure to stereotypes in the media can increase prejudice and decrease empathy toward the targeted group.
Furthermore, there are many studies that show a link between violence in the media and violent behaviour. Supported by the US Department of Health and Human Services Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDP), one such study of 1588 10- to 15-year-olds concluded that exposures to violence in the media, both online and offline, were associated with significantly elevated odds for youth expressing “seriously violent behavior”, while a second study published one year later in 2009 that analysed data on 820 youth, including 390 juvenile delinquents and 430 high school students, also observed that violent media “contributed significantly to the prediction of violence and general aggression”.
Therefore, the systematic repetition of negative messages not only in the news, but also in the media in general, not only affects our health and emotions, but also our opinions and behaviours.
According to The Representation Project, the mainstream narrative that the media sell “that girls’ and women’s value lies in their youth, beauty, and sexuality and not in their capacity as leaders” while “Boys learn that their success is tied to dominance, power, and aggression” manifests these values, behaviours and gender stereotypes in today’s youth.
A 2007 report by the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls found that there is ample evidence of sexualisation in television, music videos, music lyrics, movies, magazines, sports media, video games, the internet and advertising, and that girl’s exposure to such content has many negative consequences, including eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.
In 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics studied “food and beverage brand placements in a large representative sample of popular movies” and concluded that “branding food packages with licensed characters substantially influences young children’s taste preferences and snack selection and does so most strongly for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods”.
This research is nothing new. Consumer Psychology, as explained by Lars Perner, Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing at the University of Southern California, is the study of human behaviour in order to influence “how consumers think, feel, reason, and select between different alternatives” in order to increase sales and drive profitability.
A very recent 2017 study confirmed that “advertisement has significant impact on consumer buying behaviour”.
2017 was the first year advertisers spent more money on digital ads than TV advertisements according to Recode, and the research arm of media buying firm IPG Mediabrands predicts that the global ad market spend for 2018 could reach $551 billion. Companies aiming to increase sales and drive profitability simply would not spend this money on digital and TV advertising if the systematic repetition of a message does not shape behaviour.
Yet research in 2012 by Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen (et al) not only found that systematically exposing university students to images of luxury goods, or words encouraging consumerist values, caused them to rate themselves higher in depression and anxiety and less interested in social activities, but the very identity of being a “consumer” rather than an “individual” caused participants to rate themselves as less trusting, cooperative and personally responsible when dealing with a problem.
In other words, the fundamental psychology of advertising can cause a lessening of self-worth and make us less sociable, cooperative and proactive. Bodenhausen told the Association for Psychological Science we can take personal initiatives to reduce the depressive, isolating effect of this mindset by avoiding its stimulants – most obviously, advertising. One method: “Watch less TV”.
It is important to remember that neuroplasticity is a two-way street. While we can repeat positive behaviours that cause positive cognitive and behavioural changes to occur, we can also fortify negative cognitive and behavioural patterns that are detrimental to our health and happiness.
So far we have primarily looked at factors that hinder personal and global wellness. As was demonstrated in the first lesson, most people are not making informed decisions; instead we are actually carrying out actions that are decreasing (not increasing) our personal and global wellness.
This lesson explains why. The mainstream narrative educates us to think about the world in a particular way, such as through problems, conflict, prejudicial categorisation of others, and fear; yet the science clearly shows that this view of the world not only affects our health and emotions negatively, but also our opinions and behaviours.
Even though science shows clearly that not repeating this negative stimulation increases our cognitive function, longevity, health, happiness and wellness, we may explain away this information with a comment like “I already don’t watch that much TV” rather than repeat the behaviour less.
Through systematic repetition, the mainstream narrative has become a powerful neural pathway in our brains, but the narrative is just that – a chosen story that we are all educated to accept as fact.
If we engage less in mainstream media, is there an alternative narrative, another version of reality, that we could choose to focus on instead?
The latest academic research confirms that there is an alternative narrative that has been scientifically shown to increase (rather than decrease) health and happiness on a personal and global scale.
In fact, there is an academic, scientific (and social/spiritual) movement taking place worldwide right now that is rapidly moving away from the mainstream problem-ridden narrative towards this positive, solutions-focused narrative.
WUWE is primarily interested in the growing academic and scientific movement that is actively involved in promoting this new narrative of personal and global wellness, and the third lesson will look in detail at this movement and how it is increasing personal and global wellness.
The final lesson will show you how to use all this knowledge to delve into the new narrative of personal and global wellness yourself.