Tue. Feb 18th, 2020

99 – Understanding Cognitive Biases – News Illusion

WHAT IS NEWS ILLUSION AND WHY YOU SHOULDN’T READ THE NEWS 

‘Earthquake in Sumatra.’ 

‘Plane crash in Russia.’ 

‘Man holds daughter captive in cellar for thirty years.’ 

‘Heidi Klum separates from Seal.’ 

‘Record salaries at Bank of America.’ 

‘Attack in Pakistan.’ 

‘Resignation of Mali’s president’.

‘ New world record in shot-put.’

Do you really need to know all these things?

We are incredibly well informed yet we know incredibly little. Why? Because two centuries ago, we invented a toxic form of knowledge called ‘news’. News is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetising, easy to digest – and highly destructive in the long run. 

Three years ago, I began an experiment. I stopped reading and listening to the news. I cancelled all newspaper and magazine subscriptions. Television and radio were disposed of. I deleted the news apps from my iPhone. I didn’t touch a single free newspaper and deliberately looked the other way when someone on a plane tried to offer me any such reading material. The first weeks were hard. Very hard. I was constantly afraid of missing something. But after a while, I had a new outlook. The result after three years: clearer thoughts, more valuable insights, better decisions, and much more time. And the best thing? I haven’t missed anything important. My social network – not Facebook, the one that exists in the real world consisting of flesh-and-blood friends and acquaintances – works as a news filter and keeps me in the loop.

A dozen reasons exist to give news a wide berth. Here are the top three. First, our brains react disproportionately to different types of information. Scandalous, shocking, people-based, loud, fast-changing details all stimulate us, whereas abstract, complex and unprocessed information sedates us. News producers capitalise on this. Gripping stories, garish images and sensational ‘facts’ capture our attention. Recall for a moment their business models: advertisers buy space and thus finance the news circus on the condition that their ads will be seen. The result: everything subtle, complex, abstract and profound must be systematically filtered out, even though such stories are much more relevant to our lives and to our understanding of the world. As a result of news consumption, we walk around with a distorted mental map of the risks and threats we actually face. 

Second, news is irrelevant. In the past twelve months, you have probably consumed about 10,000 news snippets – perhaps as many as thirty per day. Be very honest: name one of them, just one, that helped you make a better decision – for your life, your career or your business – compared with not having this piece of news. No one I have asked has been able to name more than two useful news stories – out of 10,000. A miserable result. News organisations assert that their information gives you a competitive advantage. Too many fall for this. In reality, news consumption represents a competitive disadvantage. If news really helped people advance, journalists would be at the top of the income pyramid. They aren’t – quite the opposite.

Third, news is a waste of time. An average human being squanders half a day each week on reading about current affairs. In global terms, this is an immense loss of productivity. Take the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. Out of sheer thirst for recognition, terrorists murdered 200 people. Let’s say a billion people devoted an hour of their time to following the aftermath: they viewed the minute-by-minute updates and listened to the inane chatter of a few ‘experts’ and ‘commentators’. This is a very realistic ‘guesstimate’ since India has more than a billion inhabitants. Thus our conservative calculation: one billion people multiplied by an hour’s distraction equals one billion hours of work stoppage. If we convert this, we learn that news consumption wasted around 2,000 lives – ten times more than the attack. A sarcastic but accurate observation.

I would predict that turning your back on news will benefit you as much as purging any of the other ninety-eight flaws we have covered in the pages of this book. Kick the habit – completely. Instead, read long background articles and books. Yes, nothing beats books for understanding the world.

Next:
Epilogue

Similar Biases:
36.) Fundamental Attribution Error – NEVER ASK A WRITER IF THE NOVEL IS AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
70.) Sleeper Effect – WHY PROPAGANDA WORKS
07.) Confirmation Bias (Part 1) – BEWARE THE ‘SPECIAL CASE’
08.) Confirmation Bias (Part 2) – MURDER YOUR DARLINGS
59.) Information Bias – IF YOU HAVE AN ENEMY, GIVE HIM INFORMATION
87.) Personification – WHY YOU PREFER NOVELS TO STATISTICS
13.) Story Bias – EVEN TRUE STORIES ARE FAIRYTALES

Previous:
98.) Intention-To-Treat Error – SPEED DEMONS MAKE SAFE DRIVERS

The above article is from the book The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand cognitive biases. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!

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