Are we in danger of talking ourselves into recession?

May 20, 2008

How media suggestion impacts our mental maps

Are we really in a crisis? In the last ten years we have experienced unprecedented world economic growth. During this period we, as a nation, had a mind set of spend, spend, spend. This is not surprising since political leaders did not show financial prudence with the millions pounds raised in taxes through the ‘earn it, borrow and spend it’ mentality. For many people, their sole investment strategy was to borrow more to buy a bigger house with the intention of increasing their assets as house prices continued to increase.  All good, in a booming housing market!  The banks, desperate to win market share, often lent to new customers at an interest rate lower than they, the banks, could borrow at themselves. When the international money market tightened its belt and cut off the supply of lending to domestic banks, holes soon appeared in the bank’s balance sheet, hence the need for them (the banks) to raise money through issuing new shares or relying on government help.So what has any of this got to so with NLP? Well, in the NLP model human beings define what we perceive to be real through a mental map of the world. We use language as way of coding our mental maps. Daily, we respond to events around us and create personal experience through mapping the world through our five senses and creating meaning through language. Media messages certainly affect on our mental map and our perceptions of local and global events. Journalists’ use emotively charged words with the purpose of stirring a kinesthetic reaction in the people who are reading the newspapers or listening to news reports.

Below are some examples of emotively charged words that hook people. Often the facts are far less dramatic than the headline.  The sentences are designed to create a kinesthetic reaction, which will cause you to pay attention to the message and buy the newspaper, magazine for the ‘facts’.

House prices in freefall
Describing a 0.1% change in the market over one month

Inflation rockets again
Describing inflation increasing from 2.5% to 2.8%

Are we more interested in bad news?

Research at the University of Chicago by Chip Heath indicated that people prefer to focus on bad news rather than good news (Chip Heath 1996). This may well be that, as human beings; we seek security, and by being aware of potential threats prepare ourselves for events ahead. In the case of non-life threatening situations, this is akin to an intellectual fight or flight strategy. It seems that journalists are aware of this and carefully pitch their headlines to capture this part of our attention. Such is the public’s propensity for bad news, journalists often put a spin on good news so that a negative message is carried with it.

‘House prices rocket, first time buyer’s gloom’

‘Interest rates so low, people over-borrowing’

Both of these headlines cause the reader to pay attention to the bad news element of what could be considered as good news.

‘Record passes in A levels, causes concern about ‘dumbing down’
A different context, but the same principles of focussing on bad news using emotive language.

Imagine the media reporting stable hedlines

‘Moderate house price increase causes home owners to feel secure’

‘Interest rates remain stable, causing even more security for homeowners’

‘Record passes in A levels, a sign of young people’s hard work’

‘No violence on the streets, everyone feels very safe’

The headlines above are not expressing bad news or over expressing good news. They probably would not create high levels of interest as they are simply reinforcing the status quo.

The problem is when we believe the news because we think it's credible

Some news items receive such publicity or come from an apparently credible source, the story then gets treated as fact in public discourses. The more credible the source (in our minds) the more easily we will believe what we hear, which then becomes true in our maps of the world. Tony Blair, in 2003, when he was British Prime Minister commissioned a report called ‘Iraq – its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation’ (2003).  The purpose of the report was to inform the British public and Members of Parliament of the then risks that the country faced from a potential attack from Iraq. The document made several claims about Iraq’s ability to mobilise weapons of mass destruction including biological weapons. The document was issued to journalists before a debate in parliament on the issues documented in the paper.  We will never know the extent to which the media reports influenced the MPs mental maps before the debate. In addition the MPs would have been under pressure from their own constituents who were highly aware (or at least thought they were) of the potential threat to the country based on information collated by ‘experts’ and presented in the mass media.

The mental maps of the MPs were well primed before Tony Blair’s speech to the House of Commons, where he spoke of a “a clear and present danger to national security posed by Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction, particularly a ‘dirty’ radiological bomb.” (Blair 2003). On March 18th MPs voted 396 votes to 217 to send British troops to Iraq. This was ‘bad news’ in the extreme, presented in emotive language from what was then considered a highly credible source (the Prime Minister). The House of Commons, the Press and the public were together in their thinking that the country needed to defend itself. The problem was, as we now know, key parts of the report were flawed and not representing facts.

Another example of generalised mental maps based on false information occurred in the USA in the mid 1990s.  In Newsweek. July 25, 1994, (cited by Chip Heath 1996) it was reported ‘50,000 children are abducted by strangers each year’. Senator Paul Simon cited this figure in Congress in 1983, and it was widely used by media and politicians for years. The media reports of this figure reinforced political views, and political statements reinforced media reports. But a 1988 Justice Department study found fewer than 5,000 stranger abductions that year.’ (Cited by Heath, 1996). In both the Iraq Dossier and the abduction example, the apparently credible sources give the news higher-level exposure.

Turning our attention back to the economic situation in our country, some markets have slowed, others have remained static and some have increased. The FTSE 100 index has risen 3.1 % in the last quarter. Nationwide figures for house prices show an increase of 3.3% in the last twelve months. Interestingly, the press reported the annual house price figure as the ‘slowest annual increase in house prices since 2006’ It need not all be doom and gloom, I suggest that you educate yourself on facts and step back from the hype and emotive language in newspapers. The key is to be clear about your own goals and the language you use inside your mind to interpret events around you.

Thinking differently

If you are an investor, there are many great opportunities out there in property and equities. Look wisely at sectors for equities and location for property. If you are an entrepreneur there are great opportunities for new business ideas to grow in a time when so many people in the country are focused on the negative.

Having experienced two recessions, the first in the early 1980s when I first joined the employment market and then again in the early 1990s when I was running my own business, in my opinion our current situation shows no signs of following those challenging times. However, if we get caught up in the bad news that is reporting emotive interpretations as opposed to facts, we run the risk of talking ourselves nationally into a recession. The alternative………….do your own research, make non-emotive judgment and be very clear about your goals.


Heath, C. ‘Do People Prefer to Pass Along Good or Bad News? Valence and Relevance of News as Predictors of Transmission Propensity’ 1996, University of Chicago, Blair, A (2003)  House of Commons, Hansard.

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