‟Bad World” Syndrome

By Matthieu Ricard on June 17, 2013

The media seems to play on the fascination that we seem to have with violent, malicious, and perverse actions. A criminal who commits a horrible crime will be discussed much more than a volunteer who helps the elderly. Perhaps this fascination arises because of the shock we feel by atrocities that deviate so much from our ordinary actions.

Repeated news about violence has a direct impact on our minds. For decades, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have studied the effects of television on the public. Their results show that that people who constantly watch negative actions on television develop a predisposition to act in the same way.

They also discovered that the more we watch television, the more we begin to think that people are selfish and would cheat us given the opportunity. Long before the age of broadcasting, Ciceron observed that, ‟If we are made, at each instant, to look at or hear about horrible events, this incessant flow of detestable impressions will deprive even the most humane of us of any respect for humanity.”

In contrast, when the media makes the effort to show the generous aspects of human nature, those watching easily identify with this positive approach. The recent series ‟CNN Heroes” is very successful. This show presents portraits and accounts of people who are often very humble and unknown, who have undertaken novel and helpful social projects, or who are totally involved in the defense of just causes.

Tragedies and violence make headlines and are at the forefront of movies and fiction. When we speak of an ‟action” movie, it means that protagonists kill each other from the beginning to the end of the movie. A 20 year-old American will have seen an average of 40,000 fictional murders on television (8,000 before the age of 12) while, thankfully, only a few of us have directly witnessed a real murder.
So we must not be surprised that we suffer from what is called the ‟bad world syndrome”. This term implies that we live in an essentially hostile world populated by selfish individuals who only care about advancing their personal interests, even if it means sacrificing the well-being of those around them.

It is essential for the media to show a more realistic view of things and to highlight the countless actions in our everyday lives that show kindness, helpfulness, cooperation, and solidarity.