In my lifetime, I’ve been forced to painfully recognize a few of the hazards of living with this so called American overabundance of things. We don’t always recognize it because it’s our ‘normal’, but we’re a very fortunate bunch of people in the big scheme of things. We’re the biggest exporter of food in the world, exporting enormous quantities of corn and wheat and meat; “feeding the world” we like to say. We’re also over-stuffing our own pie-holes as well which is why we are also leading the world in obesity and diabetes. With the advent of social media and news-on-the-go, we’ve simultaneously become the leading consumers of information which has led to all sorts of unintended outcomes.
Most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what GooGoo’s are to the body. News can be very addictive and super easy to digest, like Chinese food, leaving us hungry for more in an hour. The media feeds us small tasty morsels of trivial matter, snippets, and tidbits that have little or nothing to do with our daily lives and which require absolutely no brain power to process at all. Unlike reading books and magazine articles which require thinking, we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes or political innuendo, which are like bright-colored candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to toxic news and information that we faced 20 years ago with regard to food. We are just now beginning to recognize the real toxicity of news.
News misleads, oftentimes intentionally but most often as a result of confirmation biases and group think. We watch the news stations that we know up-front will most likely present or frame their stories in ways that agree with our own views and opinions such that all of the information we consume does nothing but to confirm what we already believe. From the perspectives of someone whose job it is to deliver our news, they know their audiences and work hard to creatively frame their reporting in ways that are congruent with the expectations of their audiences. It’s entertainment, not news.
Actor Denzel Washington recently summed it up for us after the media ran a “fake news” story on him falsely claiming that he switched political support from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read it, you’re misinformed. So what a responsibility you all have — to tell the truth.” Washington exclaimed to the rabid pack of reporters gathered on the red carpet. “In our society, now it’s just who’s first — who cares, get it out there. We don’t care who it hurts. We don’t care who we destroy. We don’t care if it’s true, just say it, sell it. Anything you practice you’ll get good at — including BS.”
We as a society are not rational enough to be exposed to this modern psychology-driven press. Most of us grew up with responsible news anchormen like Walter Cronkite who was touted as being the most trusted man on television. In my childhood, I learned that nightly television news was where I could get my daily doses of reality. But Walter is dead and so is unbiased news. Thus we are woefully unprepared from a psychological sense to qualitatively analyze and filter out the kinds of biases that are common in news reporting today. Today’s news is designed to get ratings, not to educate or inform.
Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real statistical probability. If you think you can compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you would be sadly mistaken. Bankers and economists – who have enormously powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have historically shown us that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.
News today is mostly irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you may have read or watched in the last 12 months, name one story that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of modern news is totally irrelevant to you aside from an Amber Alert. But most of us find it very difficult to recognize what is and isn’t relevant.
It’s much easier to recognize what’s new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organizations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive cerebral advantage. Many of us totally fall for that as it appeals to our egos. Some actually get anxious when they’re cut off from the constant flow of news – unable to enjoy a dinner or social situation without constant manipulations of their iPhones. In reality, news consumption is a huge competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger life advantage you have.
News has absolutely zero real explanatory power. News items are mere bubbles of air popping on the undulating surface of a much deeper and complex world. Will accumulating tons of news-facts help you better understand our world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below shock-journalists’ radar but have a transformative effect like Rock and Roll, hippies or frozen food.
The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. If more news information leads one to higher economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the economic pyramid. That’s not generally the case except for the journalists who tease our imaginations with fantastic works of fiction like Harry Potter or Star Wars.
News can also be toxic to our bodies. It constantly triggers the human limbic system. Shocking stories spur the immense releases of cortisol. This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High cortisol levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision, desensitization and weight gain. Now you know; it’s amazingly unfair to be forced into watching sexy news anchors on television with perfect bodies who’s job it is to make us bald and fat by force-feeding us sugar-coated stress balls.
News also increases cognitive errors. News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. In the words of Warren Buffett: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” News exacerbates this flaw of humanity. We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities.
It also exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that make sense – even if they don’t correspond to reality. Today’s journalism proposes simplistic answers for complex situations. There’s no time to explain, it’s just easier to offer us viewers whatever explanations that both entertain us and fit the agenda.
News actually inhibits normal thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory.
There are two types of memory, long-term and short-term memory. Our long-term memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is directly through a sort of narrow choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to fully understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through.
Because news disrupts our concentration, it weakens overall comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study, two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system. News works much like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue and end. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore.
Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After reading four or five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, and they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed. This phenomenon is constantly proven every time I write a blog that is more than two pages long. Information is no longer a scarce commodity; attention is.
News kills creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. My own sister, an accomplished artist and creativity sensei, could care less about news. She inspires me to un-clutter my mind all the time. On the other hand, I know a bunch of boring and non-creative minds who consume news like meth-addicts.
Society needs journalism – but in a different way than we’re getting it. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. We need warnings of relevant danger and notices of pertinent information like obituaries and 10 mile-long yard sales. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.
News only shows the exception to the rule, never the rule itself. An example might be the Michael Brown/Ferguson, Missouri news story. How many people have been hurt, cops killed, stores looted, cars set on fire and collective property damage calculated as a result of a reputed criminal who robbed a store and died while trying to kill a police officer? The toxic ratings-oriented news of today exacerbates ones feelings of institutional racism and disillusionment with government because its profitable to report the news that way. It doesn’t “pay” these days to report facts.
A car drives across a bridge, and suddenly the bridge collapses. What does modern news media focus on? The car. What direction it was traveling. The driver. Where he came from. Where he was headed. How he survived his near-death experience, his many struggles to cope with his new physical limitations, and frustrated attempts to walk unsupported at his September wedding.
But that is all completely irrelevant. What is relevant? The structural stability of that dang bridge! That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges, right? But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, the injured person is entertaining and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk-map in our heads.
No news is actually good news. Perhaps it’s time to hit the scales because you just gained 4 pounds reading this blog.