Illustration: Matija Medved

One Day at a Time

Breaking Your Addiction to Breaking News

Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer

Do you find yourself compulsively checking your favorite news sites over and over — looking for the latest news? Repeatedly these past few weeks, I was asked to help folks with this. It seems we’re all struggling with it, so I wanted to explain why this happens and what you can do about it.

Here’s the science.

Our brains are wired to plan for the future. Why? So we can remember where to find food. Imagine our ancient ancestors out on the savanna foraging for food. When they happened upon a food source, their brains fired off a bunch of dopamine — the chemical in our brain associated with reward.

This helped them lay down a memory so they could recall what they ate and where they found it. But over the course of the learning process, the timing of the dopamine firing changes. Instead of dopamine firing when our ancestors encountered the food itself, it started firing when they thought about going after food. And this is still true for us today: Dopamine shifts from firing when we get food, to firing when we anticipate getting food. This is part of habit formation, and why all of us today feel cravings and urges. We get hungry, which triggers memories of where we’ve found food in the past, which triggers dopamine firing to motivate us to go get it.

It’s likely that the bigger the headline, the bigger the dopamine hit. It certainly feels that way to me!

How does this relate to compulsively checking the news?

In today’s world, information is food. It helps us survive. If you haven’t checked your favorite news site in a while, you might get a dopamine spritz when some big news hits. It’s likely that the bigger the headline, the bigger the dopamine hit. It certainly feels that way to me!

And even though big news doesn’t hit every five minutes, you feel compelled to check in anticipation of getting new news. You check and check and maybe one in 20 times (depending on how often you check) big news hits. This is exactly why slot machines are so addictive. We’re inadvertently setting ourselves up to get addicted to checking the news through what is called intermittent reinforcement — a fancy term for getting random rewards.

So what can you do?

It is really important to stop doing this as quickly as possible so you don’t develop a news-checking habit or addiction. Now that you know why it is happening, first remind yourself that you can either make it worse by feeding it, or you can nip it in the bud. Next, ask yourself, how often do I really need to check the news? Set some limits. About 10 years ago, I was absolutely addicted to checking the news. To deal with it, I limited myself to checking twice a day.

In these times, I would suggest something similar: checking no more than three times a day. If you give yourself too high of a limit, you’ll likely forget if you maxed out for the day (unless you keep track), and your sneaky brain will try to convince you to check once more. Just like an alcoholic who is also a bartender with constant access to hooch, it’s hard to stay away from your vice if your phone or laptop is constantly within reach.

Pausing to notice what the news check does for you is also key. After you do it, check in with your body and mind and ask, “What did I get from this?” This helps you determine if it was worth it. Did you waste time? Did you get more agitated and scroll more and more looking for something new? If yes, that’s your dopamine firing telling you to keep searching, the food’s got to be out there somewhere! My lab has studied how this simple question can help people stop overeating. You can use the same trick to help you stop overconsuming news.

Asking the question, “What do I get from this?” is the key link between action and outcome.

I won’t go into all of the science of it right now, but if you’re curious, you can read some of my lab’s published studies to review the evidence or watch this short animation on how this works in the brain. Why does this trick work? It helps you hack the reward center in your brain to help you see how unrewarding it is to constantly check the news. But you have to be aware to do this. Asking the question, “What do I get from this?” is the key link between action and outcome. You’ll quickly realize that checking the news doesn’t feel that great, which helps you get less excited to do it in the future. Repeat this every time you check the news and see what emerges.

I’ve been ending each of my daily columns with a page from the book my wife and I have been reading together called The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse. Here is today’s snippet:

“I’ve discovered something better than cake,” said the mole.

“No you haven’t,” said the boy.

“I have,” replied the mole.

“What is it?” asked the boy.

“A hug. It lasts longer.”

So if news is your cake, and you find yourself with a brain ache from overconsuming it, take that nervous energy and turn it toward your loved ones. Hug your family members, take your dog for a walk, or cuddle with your cat. Wouldn’t it be great if we all got addicted to kindness instead?

Onward together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in a video recording of this material, I’ve created one here.

Addiction Psychiatrist. Neuroscientist. Habit Change Expert. Brown U. professor. Founder of MindSciences. Author: Unwinding Anxiety. @judbrewer