Neurotic people have noisier, more chaotic minds, say researchers
Study finds that neurotic people deal with more "mental noise" than others.
- Neuroticism is characterized by emotional instability and lack of resilience.
- People who score high on neuroticism are at an increased risk for mental health problems and relationship woes.
- New research suggests that neurotic people deal with more mental noise.
Of the main personality traits, Neuroticism (characterized by emotional instability and lack of resilience) is probably the one with the least going for it.
High scorers on this trait are impulsive, tend to worry a lot, and they struggle with low moods and short tempers. Thanks to personality research, we know a lot about what lies in store for people who score high on neuroticism, such as increased risk of mental health problems and relationship turmoil. But as Robert Klein and Michael Robinson note in their new paper in Journal of Personality we know a lot less about the psychological processes that underlie the trait. From an emotional perspective, neurotic people are said to be more sensitive to threat and punishment, but what about the cognitive side? Across four studies, Klein and Robinson present evidence consistent with what they call the mental noise hypothesis — "neurotic people have noisier, more chaotic mental control systems," they write.
The four studies involved hundreds of undergrad students, who filled out personality questionnaires and then took part in a simple tracking task, in which they had to use a computer mouse or joystick to track a horizontally moving on-screen target with their cursor as accurately as possible. Each tracking trial, of which there were up to 60 per person, lasted between 30 seconds or as little as 5 seconds.
The researchers were able to examine participants' tracking accuracy with high temporal precision, using the task to assess "micro-momentary disconnections between the mind and its control of the external environment." Given the shortness of the trials, plus the fact the task did not require storing or manipulating information in working memory, and that there was no need to adjust to different instructions, Klein and Robinson said it was too simple and easy to be considered an "executive function" task (involving more complex mental processes) and was instead best characterized as a "form of mindfulness task that requires intention, attention and awareness concerning a simple activity."
Notably, previous research has found an inverse correlation between trait neuroticism and trait mindfulness — neurotic folk are often so fretful and distracted with worry about the past and future that they find it difficult to be in the present. However, according to past findings, this distracted state doesn't manifest in lower IQ or worse job performance. This paradox may be explained by neurotic people compensating by investing more effort than average, the researchers suggested (after all, anxiety-prone people would hate to fail or underperform). Part of the rationale for the tracking task, then, was that it would be so simple that performance would not vary with greater effort — in a sense providing the researchers with a pure measure of their participants' mental control, or what you could think of as their levels of mental noise.
True to their predictions, the researchers found that across all the studies, higher scorers in neuroticism were less accurate at tracking the on-screen targets. Also, the link between neuroticism and poorer performance was consistent, being no greater during earlier or later trials (discounting the influence of factors like fatigue). "A task with excellent temporal resolution appears to possess considerable value in documenting the sorts of lapses and slips thought to be somewhat endemic to neurotic forms of self-regulation," the researchers said. In contrast, the other main personality traits, such as extraversion and conscientiousness, were not associated with performance.
The researchers also blasted the participants with annoying loud white noise at periodic intervals, to see if this had a greater adverse effect on more neurotic participants. Although the noise blasts impaired performance (affecting accuracy for about a second), the degree of impairment wasn't any greater for more neurotic people. This may be because the distraction of the noise was so immediate and unavoidable that personality differences were not relevant.
In the final study, after completing the tracking task, participants were also asked to keep a two-week daily diary of their feelings of distress and nervousness, as well as any daily stressors, such as feeling like they had too much to do. Poorer performance on the tracking task correlated with more frequent daily experiences of negative emotional states, regardless of any actual stressors. Klein and Robinson said this was consistent with their task being a kind of implicit personality measure: "even brief lapses of attention can reflect the sorts of processes that give rise to longer term affective consequences," they said.
If the researchers are correct in their characterization of neuroticism — and we need more studies with more diverse participant samples to test their theory — it could open up avenues for interventions to increase emotional stability, for example through training to increase mental control and so reduce mental noise.
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- Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.
Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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