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News is to the mind as sugar is to the body

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Tuesday February 11, 2014 at 10:00am
I stopped following the mainstream news media about 2 years ago. I simply felt that I was wasting my time on issues that have no impact on my life, increasing my anxiety levels and crucially, taking up precious time. I now use that time to read books and articles about things that directly affect my life and the work that I do for clients. When I came across an article by Rolf Dobelli on this very subject I felt vindicated. The general argument is as follows:

We are so well informed but we know so little. We evolved from hunter gatherers living in groups of less than 100 individuals with limited sources of food and information. The opposite is now true but it is not what our brain has evolved to handle. Like sugar, news is easy to digest and is fed to us by a self-serving media as trivial titbits and we are able to swallow unlimited amounts of each carefully prepared lump. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan first recognised news consumption as a serious problem and many of the points below are informed by his insights.

News misleads us systematically

We are wired to pay attention to people related, shocking, scandalous, story formatted pieces with colourful pictures. Our brains pay much less attention to subtle writings that are intelligent, abstract, ambivalent, complex and slow to develop.

News organisations systematically exploit this bias by focusing on visible and popular stories, enhance them with graphic images and ignore the subtle and unpopular messages regardless of importance. News is designed to grab attention by being easy to digest and superficially attractive. The result is we end up with a totally disproportional understanding of risk. For example, in terms of risk to life; terrorism is overrated and chronic stress is underrated. The collapse of Lehman Brother is overrated, fiscal irresponsibility is underrated. Airplane crashes are overrated, resistance to antibiotics is underrated.

News is irrelevant

If you think about all of the news you consumed in the last year you will find it difficult to pick one item you consumed that allowed you to make a better decision about something serious in your life, career or business. News is largely irrelevant to the forces that affect most people’s lives. We consume it because it is easy, entertaining or possibly because we feel a sense of duty to be informed. Either way we have to consume an awful lot of it to get anything that really helps us with our lives. This is because we find it very difficult to recognise what is relevant to us; it is much easier to recognise what is new. So the media trick is to let us think we get information that is relevant to us but we actually get what is new. Despite avoiding news I still get the relevant stuff simply from people around me.

News limits understanding

Even if a news organisation does report the facts these are simply the outcome of a deeper cause. We may know a lot of facts but this does not mean we understand the world. The cause of an event and certainly the most important stories lie in deeper underlying processes that influence political, environmental or social change. This stuff is hard for us to understand, if it is visible at all and usually represents powerful movements that go undetected by us and journalists. It does get explained but in books or journals and not in the mainstream news media where there simply is not a budget or a readership for it.

I will follow this blog up with further reasons why ‘News is the new Sugar’.

Andy Parker
Chartered Accountant and Chartered Financial Planner, Solihull

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