Avoid the Dangerous Allure of “Potato-Chip News.”

Assay: I’ve identified sixteen strategies to use for fostering habits, and one strategy is the Strategy of Distraction.

It’s a highly effective strategy, particularly for people who are attracted to potato-chip news. I’m not attracted to potato-chip news, myself, so it took me a while to understand this challenge.

“Potato-chip news” is news that’s repetitive, requires little effort to absorb, and is consumable in massive quantities: true crime, natural disasters, political punditry, celebrity gossip, sports gossip, or endless photographs of beautiful houses, food, or clothes. We all have a duty to be educated citizens, but potato-chip news provides endless commentary, speculation, and images, rather than fresh facts or sophisticated analysis, and information is usually sensationalized.

Most people enjoy potato-chips news from time to time—to track a presidential election or the Oscars. However, some are particularly drawn to material that makes them feel shocked, frightened, insecure, or indignant, and that’s what potato-chip news often provides.

Often, constant exposure to potato-chip news causes a kind of distress that can inflame bad habits—in the people are most drawn to it.

The subject of potato-chip news came up when I was giving a talk, and one audience member asked: “I’m absolutely one of those people who’s attracted to potato-chip news. What they call ‘disaster porn.’ I know it’s not good for me, but somehow I always watch. Plus I do think it’s important to be an informed citizen of the world.”

“Try this,” I suggested. “Get information from written sources. Seeing distressing visual images on TV hits people a lot harder than reading about it—also, you’re more likely to watch three hours of TV coverage than to read about a subject for three hours, and written news tends to be more informative, anyway. Or decide to watch for a limited time, like ‘I’m going to watch for thirty minutes to find out what’s happening, then I’ll turn it off until tomorrow.’”

Potato-chip news has two major downsides: it can take up a lot of time, and the bigger problem, from a habits perspective, is that some people feel overwhelmed and upset, and then they indulge in bad habits to try to make themselves feel better.

Righteous anger, pity, a desire for justice—these can make us get involved and do good things. But that means taking constructive action, and potato-chip news often leaves people feeling upset, angry, or helpless, but not inspired to act. And it can have a bad effect on them. I read a comment:  “I was so worried about how the election was going to turn out that I ate half a pan of peanut-butter brownies in front of cable news.” Yes, this person is deeply interested in the situation, but still, we need to have ways to deal with somewhat remote events in ways that don’t derail or attempts to manage ourselves.

It’s stress, but really, it’s a vicarious, voluntary stress.  Spending hours stressed out in front of the TV isn’t the same as volunteering or donating. Feeling a high level of personal distress makes people feel agitated and emotionally drained, to the point that they lack the energy or detachment to help—or the energy to manage themselves. (Here are ten extremely basic tips for eliminating stress from your day.)

Potato-chip news comes in many guises. A guy at a conference confided, “I’ve realized I can’t take a five-minute break and go to ESPN.com. I read one thing, then another, I can’t get in and out quickly. Plus I’m from Cincinnati, so I care a lot about the Bengals, and if I read something about how the Bengals suck, it puts me in a really bad mood, and I can’t work.” A woman told me, “I find myself spending hours in front of Pinterest, and it makes me feel bad about myself, that I’m not hand-stenciling my bathroom, or whatever.”

For people who have a taste for it, it’s very helpful to learn to distract themselves from potato-chip news, so that this inclination doesn’t overwhelm their self-mastery. As William Edward Hartpole Lecky wrote, “To see things in their true proportion, to escape the magnifying influence of a morbid imagination, should be one of the chief aims of life.”

Are you tempted by potato-chip news? If so, how does it affect you, and how do you keep yourself from over-indulging in it?

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  • Nikki

    Great article! Learned about this in grad school. People generally prefer this form of news because it’s fast, quick, & right to the point. But unfortunately you miss important facts!

  • Christy

    I have to admit, when Newtown happened, I absolutely was a potato chip news junkie. And in the several hours that I sat in front of my television, I was misinformed multiple times. I think your tip to watch just a little bit of TV and come back the next day is an excellent suggestion.

  • Rick Townsend

    I read an article from Rolf Dobelli listing ten reasons why one should avoid the mainstream media. I was a true “potato chip news junkie,” but Dobelli’s piqued my interest and I decided to undertake a weeklong news fast.

    That weeklong news fast has turned into eighteen months and counting. What I’ve found is most of what people call “news” isn’t really news at all; it’s merely entertainment that’s a mile wide and six inches deep. It isn’t designed to inform you of the truth; it follows a carefully scripted narrative.

    People think I’m crazy when I tell them I don’t access mainstream media (with the exception of ESPN, which operates in the same fashion as other outlets). Avoiding mainstream media has allowed me to think more critically about issues instead of being spoon fed what someone else wants me to think.

    I’m a lot happier by eliminating this distraction from my life.

  • Karen Clark

    We turned off the TV for 10 years when my kids were little. Very surprising to me…we fought more! For the first months there were all kind of heated discussions with my husband. With no distractions, we addressed all the issues that were just under the surface, things that really needed to be settled, things we never addressed when we were “watching the news”. Our home was a lot more peaceful after that.

  • mborus

    I like that you use a picture showing the German TV “in color” announcement from 1967 to illustrate the article. This is from a time when TV here was very sincere, stricly non-commercial and free of the potate-chip news you righly critisize. If you haven’t seen it, the youtube source of the image is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11XMda-7pMA.

  • Amy Junod

    I find that it’s even worse this time of year due to the holiday adds. It’s horrible really. But, that’s how they make their money. The best happiness practice I started for myself was ditching the morning news. Starting the day without it really did decrease my anxiety.

  • peninith1

    I recently had an illustration of how ‘sticky’ terrible news can be. I saw 16 when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. A terrible time, I assure you. I deliberately avoided most of the orgy of re-experiencing the events around President Kennedy’s assassination, but in careless moment, picked up a Sunday crossword puzzle in the New York Times magazine devoted to Kennedy. I was able to complete it in something like 20 minutes–because I instantly remembered all the names, places, and events hammered into me during that dreadful time. That was one great big potato chip all right.

    Visual images + information are just too hard to put out of mind. After 9/11, I had great difficulty sleeping because I had been watching television day and night (as a public affairs officer for a military organization, I monitored news all day at work, too). I realized what was happening to me and why, canceled my cable TV, and regained peace of mind. I must have been one of the very few non-TV watching public affairs officers in today’s Army! I can know all kinds of things about bad news, but if I do not have to look at loops of horrifying images over and over, it does not tattoo itself on my brain so that I can’t move on and live my life.

  • Liz

    I’ve been in denial, but now I have a label for myself – potato-chip news junkie. I lose so many hours of time that could be used way more productively. Even as I’m clicking over to online news sources, I recognize that it’s become my biggest procrastination technique. I think that it’s time for a news diet!

    • melissa

      I think the Daily Mail’s entire business plan (for global domination!) can be summed up as “potato chip news”! That site sucks the life our of you, but is none the less very addictive. Set your browser to this address if you have a Daily Mail addiction – http://www.shouldireadthedailymail.com – lol

  • Emily

    Gretchen, thank you so much for posting this! It came at the perfect time. I’ve become a “Potato-chip news junkie” and agree that it can quickly become a wretched habit. My viewership developed to help me get through my (boring) work days. I’ve noticed that I tend to worry more and feel less satisfied with my job, my health, and the use of my time. I eagerly look forward to reading Before & After. I’m setting a goal for myself to banish my “Potato-chip news” habit starting immediately. Thank you!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! I hope it’s helpful.

  • Eppie

    I think I do this with Facebook; I spend more time on it than I had planned, and sometimes the news leaves me feeling unhappy, especially as it seems to me that people tend to brag about things they’ve done, parties they’ve gone to, etc.

  • Amy

    I had to stop reading newspapers about 2 or 3 years ago, because it made me so angry. All those horrible things in the papers- robberies, shootings, abuse, gleeful reporting of natural disasters, gloomy predictions of economic collapse, celebrity bad behaviour. I realised there are a lot of good people buying into the worst of humanity through the media, and I just wasn’t interested. Of course, not having a tv also helps, and I find if something important happens someone will usually bring it up in conversation (it’s surprising how few mainstream news items are worth talking about!). My state of mind improved immensely the first time I took control and refused a paper and I haven’t looked back. I find I can spare the time and energy to read about the issues I really care about without being bombarded with voyeurism and gossip.

  • I so agree with this concept, though I’d never heard of this term for it. I tend to be in a bit of a news blackout most of the time, and honestly, I don’t see much wrong with living this way. When something important happens, I do hear about it, but I’m not wasting mental energy on all the small bits of bad news that pepper news sites and shows.

    (Which reminds me: a huge downside of following news all the time is that you get a very warped perspective about the good and bad in the world. Good news doesn’t pull people in like bad news does, so the news is full of depressing stories and awfully lacking in cheerful stories.)

  • BKF

    Glad you brought this up, Gretchen! In Before Happiness, Shawn Achor describes research that suggests our prehistoric brains were wired to notice and take in negative stimuli for survival and that we still do this. He calls most negative stimuli “noise” and the 4 criteria are that it’s unusable (would not change your behaviour), untimely, hypothetical, and distracting. There is also the whole issue of “internal” noise that distracts us from productive behaviour….

    • BKF

      OR distracting, I mean. They are separate qualifiers of “noise.” So if your time spent browsing Pinterest is inspiring and will change your behaviour, it’s not noise or potato chip news. But if you just “waste time” with it and feel guilty later, it’s probably noise.

      • gretchenrubin

        Excellent point.

  • Jeanne

    I think that the best way not to get caught in potato-chip news is to have so many interesting things in your life that you don’t want to fritter away your valuable time. My hub and I take a 90-minute, 3-mile walk almost every night during prime time. Haven’t watched the nightly news or episodic TV in decades. No time. We do record a few things and watch them when we can. Lots of good stuff on TV and the internet (TED talks) as well as the mind numbing. Was surprised to see Pinterest mentioned here. I display my artwork there almost like a portfolio, and get tons of inspiration from what I see there. As opposed to Twitter which asks, “Where are you?” (With the usual mundane information.) Or Facebook which mostly asks “What really ticks you off? (With rants galore.) Pinterest asks, “What do you like?” A site where people are sharing the things that bring them joy. All things in moderation, but not potato-chip news IMHO.

  • jindrakarel

    Testing

  • biggles

    I think Facebook falls squarely into the potato-chip category too. Endlessly grazing on low-quality posts always leaves me feeling (mentally) bloated and dissatisfied.

  • Lindsey Pence

    I couldn’t agree more with your advice on potato-chip news. I recently started my own Happiness Project (thank you) and found that this kind of news got in the way of me doing things. As you put it, “some people feel overwhelmed and upset.” That was me.

    Last month, I experienced some Happiness Project “off” days driven by my perception of humanity because of potato chip news. I was tired of the news. I was tired of mean people. I was tired of hearing depressing things from the media. I was tired of people always complaining or arguing about what would be best for our country. I lost faith in government. I questioned goodness of the human race – where are all the good people? Pretty intense, huh?

    After I was done having all these negative thoughts, I started to think about why. Why was I reacting this way to all this doom and gloom? How could I drum up my happiness by avoiding doom and gloom, and how could I be happy in spite of it?

    Over the course of the week that followed those intense feelings, I was able to come up with ways that I can defeat these thoughts should they happen again including: Seeking the Good media (for every bad story, I have to find 2 good), writing life down (so I can reflect on the good in the world when I need to), and setting up a good King’s Council (a council of friends and family who can lift me out of the potato-chip news induced coma).

    I love the advice you give about getting the news I need and leaving the rest alone.

  • laurel

    I’m sure that you are familiar with the “Good News Network”. I get it in my e-mail, and share the stories with my assisted living residents.