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Downturn news depressing, but we're glued to it

This morning, expect to hear that the unemployment rate in the Tampa Bay area has breached double digits. You'll also learn more about looming state and local budget cuts.

Will you soldier on, bravely absorbing the latest assault to your financial senses? Have you reached a saturation point on economic angst?

At 15 months and counting, this recession is on the cusp of becoming the longest economic downturn since that other really big one in the 1930s That Must Not Be Named.

Many say they want to turn away from the bad news barrage. Yet, unfortunately, we appear programmed to pay attention.

University of Chicago psychologist John T. Cacioppo has a term for it: negativity bias.

In a test showing people an array of images placed on different parts of a computer screen, Cacioppo found that subjects were far more inclined to remember negative images than positive ones.

He explains our attraction to the negative in terms of human conditioning.

"There's an adaptive value to learning from other people's unfortunate circumstances," he said.

In simplest terms, we remember the bad stuff much more than the good stuff so we can survive.

It's the same reason, Cacioppo said, that our taste bud receptors are 10 times more sensitive to bitter food than to sweet. We want to quickly spit out that bitter-tasting poison.

So, economically speaking, it's true that some may be tossing their quarterly 401(k) statements in a file cabinet without glancing at them. But when it comes to noticing and remembering tales of rising unemployment and economic distress, it's like passing a car wreck on the freeway. Hard to look away; hard to forget.

That doesn't mean we don't tune out negative news from time to time.

Consider Victoria Heller, who works for the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, the Tallahassee-based group responsible for tracking our growing jobless population and trying to steer them into gainful employment.

Heller considers herself a National Public Radio aficionado, glomming on to the latest news from the financial front. But driving to work Wednesday morning, even she had her fill, flipping the radio off when Marketplace came on.

"I wanted to walk into the office today not worrying about what's happening with my savings," she said.

Even financial journalists who seem to relish reporting on Wall Street's woes aren't immune.

Across the pond, Paul Berton, editor in chief of the London Free Press, opined back in January about bad news overload. "At our news meetings," Berton wrote, "we've taken to asking the business editor to read only the first few items from his news budget — the list in its entirety is altogether too depressing."

Still, even Berton acknowledges some truth to the old saw that bad news sells, and that's why papers tend to display articles about "crime, destruction and fighting" prominently.

Little wonder that Jay Leno pulled in his biggest ratings in 10 years when President Obama stopped by his late-night show last week to chat about the crummy economy.

Cacioppo says we "habituate" to bad news eventually, but at a much slower pace than we do with good news. And even if we manage not to dwell on the recession, the professor says, we'll still be inclined to track what's going on by virtue of the economy's omnipresence in our life.

"We're fully aware it's there. We can't turn it off," he said. "We can't exactly step out of this environment."

So sit back, take it all in and learn.

It's what you're programmed to do.

Downturn news depressing, but we're glued to it 03/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 27, 2009 11:18am]
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