I’ll make you look: The insidious influence of media

Evolutionarily, there is a high tendency of the human mind to pay attention to anything that is a possible source of danger. When faced with danger, the first idea humans get is to save themselves. It is almost like a reflex, and also referred to as a ‘fight or flight’ response. When we are exposed to stimuli that are contradictory to our schemas, the same fight or flight response is activated; we’re literally at war with ideas. This is especially the case when ideas of right/wrong, okay/not okay, and morality are also part of the debate. And this is exactly what is utilized by a lot of artists to make sure that you pay attention to them. For instance, take something as simple as a Marilyn Manson music video; there is no need for it to be so graphic or chaotic. But it is. Why? Simply because of what it represents: anger, spite, chaos, sex, masochism, sadism, control, etc. The idea is to pitch something different (or controversial or 'wrong' in the conventional sense) in the most exaggerated way possible so that it demands attention.

According to Trussler and Soroka (2014), “we pay attention to bad news, because on the whole, we think the world is rosier than it actually is. When it comes to our own lives, most of us believe we're better than average, and that, like clichés, we expect things to be all right in the end. This pleasant view of the world makes bad news all the more surprising and salient. It is only against a light background that the dark spots are highlighted.” Also the reason ‘controversial’ is quickly compartmented together with ‘wrong’ is because what is controversial ‘could’ be wrong. And that is reason enough to pay attention.

We all remember our childhood days or even present days where when someone who we see as an authority or someone knowledgeable tells us something and we completely accept what they're saying, never doubting them. Interestingly, according to a study, when people are talking to an expert the decision making parts of their brain either slow down or even completely shut down, till the point that they’re blindly consuming the advice being given to them to the point of complete acceptance and agreement. This phenomenon is called Directed Deference (given by Dr. Robert Cialdini) and brings us face to face with another interesting technique that artists are using very subtly to get your attention. For instance, take any rap star in today’s date: Chance the Rapper, 50 Cent, Drake, Nicki Minaj, The Weeknd, Yo Yo Honey Singh, Baadhsah. What are they doing in the songs? Telling you what they’ve accomplished, stating their achievements: earned so much money; had sex with so many people; bought so many cars; earned a loyal following of so many people; went from the slums to the stars, etc. And that is what makes you perceive them as an ‘expert’ to the point that your brain stops analyzing their views and starts looking up to them. Because the fact remains that most of us want what they’re talking about, be it money, fame, sex, power, and so on.

Everyone likes to be rewarded and the next insidious way the media influences us is closely tied to the above point. The Dopamine Reward System, which is responsible for the elation you feel when you fall in love, or the joy you get when you have your favourite meal, not only makes us feel pleasure, but according to this University of Michigan study, it also makes us ‘want’ these satisfying experiences. Therefore, when something or someone is able to capture our imaginations of extravaganza, it makes us want it more. This, in conjunction with the fact that ‘someone’ has already established themselves as being an authority, makes them settle in our minds as the messiahs who would take us to our unfulfilled dreams.  And how could we stop paying attention to our messiahs?!

Ever notice that when everything is going right, you're likelier to pick out the things that are a bit off and not perfect? According to the Expectancy Violations Theory, we are much more likely to notice the odd one out, the sore thumb, the things and people that don’t act as we would expect them to. For instance, on a singer’s album, there might 11-12 songs and they might all be in the style of the singer, except one, and that is the one that everyone would talk about. For instance, recently when Linking Park released their newest song, the entire fan following was upset and there was so much noise on the internet because of everyone talking about it in different shades of hate. Why? It did not follow the style of songs they usually wrote.

Another thing that makes sure you catch that next show or get that new record is mystery. We’re much more likely to pay attention to what we can’t fully comprehend or ascertain. This is because the human mind, evolutionarily, is wary of uncertainty because it is associated with increased chances of unexpected dangers and reduced chances of survival. This is called the Zeigarnik Effect. Famous stars are known for using this to their advantage. While speaking about her usage of wigs, Sia said in an interview, “I thought, what doesn’t exist in pop music at the moment? And it was mystery!” She is a star amongst many others who have chosen to keep their identity concealed and at the same time used it to their advantage. There is a reason there is so much hype about the movie Daft Punk Unchained (2015) because the trailer had a clip showing one of the two members taking his helmet off. We always want to know what we can’t know, because it gives certainty. It helps us put the world around us in a clear structure that we can comprehend and not be wary of.

Therefore, it would be possible for one to see how easily, yet craftily the media is able to direct our attention to whatever it wants, all the while playing on our core nature. Directing someone’s attention to something you want them to see is quite common. The red colour of a traffic signal, the big poster of the next election, the nice dress you put on for a date, and the loud music you play in your car while cruising through the lanes. They’re all innocent ways to direct attention to yourself.  And you’re aware of it too. The question is, are you aware when someone is doing the same to you?

Shagnik Saha