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February 24th, 2022

It’s a default feature of human attention to focus on the current negative aspect of reality. Given a picture of 99 smilie faces with one frown face, we will pick out that frown face far faster than if it has been 99 frown faces and one smilie. We are hardwired to be wary, and that it. Our wariness does not discriminate other than hovering up the negative to be dwelled upon. Our wariness takes no heed of the place of such negative material in a larger context. There simply is no larger context when attention is brought to bear on the negative.


This does not, and should not delegitimatize anything negative that actually is going on. But there is a useful hierarchy of questions to be asked, in order to refocus attention in the most useful way. Given some negative thing, the first question that should arise, is: do I have any direct influence on this issue or situation? 


If the answer is ‘no’, then this is the quick exit from concern. It’s not to imply that we don’t care about the issue, but if agency is limited to a scope that does not include the topic, then any more energy spent fretting over the issue is unnecessary anxiety. Mental health is a virtuous combination of agency and concern. If these two domains don’t have substantial overlap than the human mind is rendered incapacitated, paralyzed, and depressed. Our concern must be primarily on things that we have some degree of influence over.


Notice how the “News” delivers to one aspect of human nature, but not the other. The News feeds into our default tendency to root out and focus on the negative. But it does so by drawing from sources that are far beyond our scope of influence. It’s one thing for the president of a country to watch the news. It’s quite another for an average citizen to watch the same news. One person might be able to have influence, the other - not so much.


But. Perhaps in the age of social media this isn’t exactly the case any more. Do ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ and comments on a subject have some sort of effect?


Well, maybe. This vast majority of such social-media empowered influence is irrelevant. Most of what happens online actually leads to nothing. But, that being said, it’s still the place where a completely disparate group of people unbound by nationality, location or law can bind together with a cohesive opinion - and given enough people, that opinion can go viral. 


In rare circumstances, our sphere of influence extends beyond our personal agency. In normal circumstances, that’s a contradiction, but the internet provides counter-caveats to the usual song-and-dance of human interaction.


From a personal perspective, the isolationist policy of ignoring 99% of what is going on in the world is a useful and wise one, allowing for precious attention to be allocated to better regions of influence. But - while rare - the new tools of the last couple decades do offer interesting opportunities to reach out into the world. . .

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