"Have you seen that article about older women and vitamins?" a colleague of mine breathlessly asked the other morning. Immediately feeling deficient for missing it, I had to admit, "No. What did it say?" She couldn't remember specifics but said a study came out of Finland that older women who took multivitamins were at greater risk of death. She concluded with, "I saw it on the evening news too." For her, that settled it. It was on the Internet and the evening news.
I had a vision of people -- not just older women -- frantically flushing stashes of multi-colored multivitamins down the toilet, as if just having them in their cabinets constituted some level of risk. The words panic and viral came to mind. Panic is a time-tested word, but viral has a more recent web-based connotation. Viral used to mean something caused by a virus; now it means a widely-spread web-based phenomenon. I wondered how viral this vitamin thing was going to become and how much panic would be generated as a result.
The children's story Chicken Little came to mind, specifically the phrase, "The sky is falling!" replaced by "Multivitamins mean death!" I felt like saying, "Wait a minute -- time out!" But viral panics don't generally take time-outs, they keep racing ahead, a multiplying frenzy, until the next whatever comes along and sucks up all the panic-induced carbon dioxide.
That brought me to the image of a pinball machine -- an actual pinball machine, not a graphic representation, because I'm of that age. I focused on the little silver ball, ricocheting off the nearest lever, getting thwacked from one end of the machine to the next. I decided this vitamin study made me feel like a pinball.
Think of all the stories you've seen over the years about coffee. It's bad for you. Thwack! It's good for you. Thwack! You can have this much. Thwack! You can't have that much. Thwack! Are multivitamins the new caffeine? I happen to take multivitamins and have for years. I remember being excited back in 2002 when -- finally -- JAMA came out with an article recommending all adults take a daily multivitamin. Thwack! Now, there's this study. Thwack!
How many people read the vitamin story and reacted without really investigating the information? They get thwacked by a viral headline and immediately push the panic button. It's hard to blame them, for we live in a world increasingly like the inside of a pinball machine. There are more and more media levers and arms flapping and flailing to get our attention.
Frankly, I'm tired of getting thwacked, but it's hard to break out of the machine. We live in a digital world, where entities rack up bonus points for viral responses. We live in a world where no one wants to be left behind, to be left out, to be left uninformed so we, too willingly, jump on the viral bandwagon. Bandwagon is a term that refers to the propensity of one person to believe something just because whole bunches of other people do. Today, I think the bandwagon effect should be changed to the bandwidth effect.
Bandwidth not only means faster information, it also means more information. A Newsweek article this year commented on the sheer volume of information now available and noted that in 2009 the Oxford English Dictionary added the term "information fatigue." The author concluded, "...trying to drink from a fire hose of information has harmful cognitive effects." When you're flooded with information, you have less time and energy to investigate, to question, to reason things out. You're more apt to accept the headline and skim over the story. Acceptance and skimming is tailor-made for viral outbreaks. Acceptance and skimming is decidedly pinball behavior.
I don't know what's going to come out of this latest study but, for me, I'm going to take a time out, refuse to panic, learn some more, and, in the meantime, take my multivitamin.
Follow Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregoryjantzphd