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Despite negativity, many can’t help but seek out latest Trump news

Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017.

Jim Lo Scalzo/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Like so many compulsions, this one resists all rational objections. I know that giving in to it won't make me happy; in fact, it almost always makes things worse, making me more anxious and deepening my sense of unease and frustration.

And yet, many times throughout the day – sometimes furtively, sometimes not – I seek out news of Donald Trump.

"Unfortunately it affects us all," said Jonah Berger, the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, when I asked if constantly searching for news about Trump was a habit solely for a certain type of person.

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I doubt it affects us all. Surely there are many people who opt to indulge in small doses. Or those who manage to be blissfully unaware – or as unaware as possible – of a subject that has dominated newscasts and conversations for the six unbearably long weeks since the inauguration.

Clearly, however, there are huge numbers of us eagerly looking for the latest news of the 45th President of the United States, who so far this year has consistently been one of the most searched subjects online, according to Google Trends.

In fact, most of us tend to go looking for news about Trump first thing in the morning, apparently to get it over with. "Searches for Donald Trump generally tend to peak around 6 a.m.," a Google Canada spokesperson said.

The most popular queries so far this year: "What has Donald Trump done since being elected?" and "What did Donald Trump tweet today?"

The answers, for many people, are rarely comforting. That's likely part of the compulsion, some experts say. As much as we may say we'd rather have positive news, the truth is most of us can't help but look at reports about a car wreck, a killing, a train derailment or other bad news.

In a study conducted by researchers at McGill University in 2013, participants were outfitted with eye-tracking devices and presented with a range of positive, negative and neutral news items. Most of them gobbled up the negative news, even when they said beforehand that they were more interested in positive stories.

"It could be that it's most important or it may require a change in behaviour or it might provide some kind of warning about things we are concerned about," said Stuart Soroka, one of the McGill researchers, of our apparent preference for negative news.

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There is an evolutionary explanation for this preference, said Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who specializes in the relationship between media consumption and stress.

"For survival, when you see something bad happen, you want to figure out why it happened and how to avoid it," she said.

Trump takes this evolutionary need and torques it with unpredictability to keep you always on your toes, she says.

"Why do we check the weather all the time? Because it's unpredictable and we want to be ready if something happens," McNaughton-Cassill said. "It's a constantly moving target, and you don't know [what might happen next], so you feel like you need to be ready all the time for what he's going to have done."

If the Oval Office is a weather system, it is one that has been generating hail storms one day and hurricanes the next in recent weeks, from the immigration ban to revoking guidelines on transgender bathrooms in schools. Whereas previous administrations have laid the groundwork for major announcements by communicating their intentions and how they will be working with Congress ahead of time, Trump seems to prefer springing policies on the government and the country, all the while firing off tweets trashing whatever has provoked his ire.

His immigration ban, which plunged airports into chaos and is still having effects today, is the most prominent example. He signed the executive order without giving the public any notice, then tweeted that he did that so "the 'bad'" wouldn't have the chance to "rush into our country."

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And Trump, perhaps the most natural showman ever elected president, has exploited techniques from reality television to keep his audience tuning in. For example, he turned the announcement of his pick for the Supreme Court into a prime-time affair, bringing the two men he was considering for the job to Washington for a big reveal.

"He is operating off of the reality-show, entertainment way," McNaughton-Cassill said. "It's almost like watching The Bachelor or some show where you keep waiting to see what the next big drama is going to be."

Of course, there are many unpredictable, sensationalistic people we have no trouble ignoring. Many of us probably had no trouble ignoring Trump when he was hosting The Apprentice. Not any more.

"He's an unpredictable guy and he's also the leader of the free world. When you put those things together it is very interesting news to read," Soroka said.

Like many of us, Soroka is similarly fascinated by news of the U.S. President, although he has found ways to put limits on it.

"There comes a point where you can only take so much," he said.

Video: Rob Ford had similar message to Donald Trump, claims Doug Ford (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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