We are so well informed and yet we know so little. Why?
We are in this sad condition because 200 years ago we invented a toxic form of knowledge called news. The time has come to recognize the detrimental effects that news has on individuals and societies, and to take the necessary steps to shield us from its dangers.
At core, we are cavemen in suits and dresses. Our brains are optimized for a hunter-gatherer environment where we lived in small bands of 25 to 100 individuals with limited food and information sources. Our brains (and our bodies) now live in a world that is the opposite of what we are designed to handle. This leads to great risk and to inappropriate, outright dangerous behavior.
In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognized the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome) and have started to shift our diets.
News is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no satation. Unlike reading books and long, deep magazine articles (which requires thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, like bright colored candies for the mind.
Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information overload that we faced 20 years ago with food intake. We are beginning to recognize how toxic news can be and we are learning to take the first steps toward an information diet.
This is my attempt to clarify the dangers of the most toxic form of information – news – and to provide some recommendations about how to deal with it. I have now gone without news for a year, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first hand: less disruption, more time, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
My good friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb was one of the first people to recognize news consumption as a serious problem. I owe most of the following insights to him.
News misleads us systematically
News reports do not represent the real world.
Our brains are wired to pay attention to visible, large, scandalous, sensational, shocking, people-related, story-formatted, fast changing, loud, graphic onslaughts of stimuli. Our brains have limited attention to spend on things that are small, abstract, ambivalent, complex, slow to develop and quiet, much less silent. News organizations systematically exploit this bias.
The news media, by and large, focus on the highly visible. They display whatever information they can convey with gripping stories and lurid pictures, and they systematically ignore the subtle and insidious, even if it is more important. News grabs our attention; that’s how its business model works. Even if the advertising model didn’t exist, we would still soak up news pieces because they are easy to digest and superficially quite tasty.
The highly visible misleads us.
Take the following event. A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? On the car. On the person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). What kind of person he is (was). But – that is all completely irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lingering for a while.
The car doesn’t matter at all. It could have been any car that caused the bridge to collapse. It could have been a strong wind or a dog walking over the bridge. So, why does the media cover the car? Because it’s flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce.
As a result of news, we walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our head.
Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated. The collapse of Lehman is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated. Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated. Britney Spears is overrated. IPCC Reports are underrated. Airplane crashes are overrated. Resistance to antibiotics is underrated. We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. It is a very dangerous thing, because the probabilistic mapping we get from consuming news is entirely different from the actual risks that we are exposed to. If you watch an airplane crash on news television, it’s going to change your attitude toward that risk regardless of its real probability, no matter your intellectual sophistication. If you think you can compensate this bias with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.
News is irrelevant
Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision affecting your life, your career, your business – compared to not having swallowed that piece of news.
The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to the forces that really matter in your life. At its best, it is entertaining, but it is still irrelevant.
Assume that, against all odds, you found one piece of news that substantially increased the quality of your life – compared to how your life would have unfolded if you hadn’t read or seen it. How much trivia did your brain have to digest to get to that one relevant nugget? And that is a hindsight analysis. Looking forward, we can’t even identify the value of a piece of news before we see it. So we are forced to digest everything on the news buffet line. Is that worth it? Probably not.
In 1914, Sarajevo was the news story that dwarfed all other news in terms of its significance that year by a factor of a billion. But, Sarajevo was just one of several thousand stories in circulation on that day. No news organization treated it anything more than just another politically inspired assassination. The first Internet browser debuted in 1995. That hugely relevant piece of software, which bore such important future impact, barely made it into the press.
It’s very difficult for us to recognize what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognize what’s new. We are not equipped with sensory organs for relevance. Relevance doesn’t come naturally. News does. That’s why the media plays on the new. (If our minds were structured the other way round, the media would certainly play on the relevant.) The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the modern man.
News creates a worldview that is not relevant to you. What does relevance mean? It means: what is important to you personally. Relevance is a personal choice. Don’t take the media’s view for it. For the media, anything that sells lots of copies is relevant – Darfour, Paris Hilton, a train crash in China, some idiotic world record (someone who ate 78 cheese burgers in one hour).
That is why the news industry has a swindle at the core of its business (this it shares with the circus performances, Freudian psychotherapy and palm-reading). It sells the relevant, but delivers the new. In short, it’s a camouflage industry.
Media organizations want us to believe that news offers some sort of a competitive advantage. Many people fall for that. We get anxious when we’re cut off from the flow of news. We fear we’ve missed something important. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume the bigger the advantage you have over others.
Afraid you will miss “something important”? Believe me, if something really important happens, you will hear about it, even if you try to live protected from the news in a cocoon. Friends and colleagues will tell you the relevant events far more reliably than any news organization. They will do this with the added benefit of meta-information, since you know how they think. If you don’t have friends, you will learn far more about really important events and societal shifts by reading about them in specialized journals, in-depth magazines or good books.
News limits understanding
News has no explanatory power. News items are little bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world.
News organizations pride themselves on correctly reporting the facts, but the facts that they prize are just epiphenomena of deeper causes. Both news organizations and news consumers mistake knowing a litany of facts for understanding the world.
It’s not “news facts” that are important, but the threads that connect them. What we really want is to understand the underlying processes, how things happen. Unfortunately, precariously few news organizations manage to do this. The problem is that the underlying processes that govern significant social, political and environmental movements mostly are invisible. They are complex, non-linear and hard for our (and the journalists’) brains to digest. Why do news organizations go for the light stuff, the anecdotes, scandals, people-stories and pictures? The answer is simple: because they are cheaper to produce.
The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below the journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect.
Most people believe that more information makes for better decisions. News organizations support this belief. Hell, it’s in their own interest. Will the accumulation of facts help you understanding the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is actually inverted. The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand.
There is no evidence that information junkies are better decision makers. They are certainly not more successful than the average Joe. If more information leads to higher economic success we would expect journalists to be on top of the pyramid. That’s not the case. Quite to the contrary. We don’t know what makes people successful, but amassing information is certainly not part of it.
Reading news to understand the world is worse than not reading anything. What’s best: cut yourself off from daily news consumption entirely. Read books and thoughtful journals instead of gulping headlines.
News is toxic to your body
News constantly triggers the limbic system. They spur the release of cascades of glucocordicoid (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. The effects of high glucocordicoid levels are impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. News consumers risk impairing their physical health. The other potential effects of news include fear, aggression, tunnel thinking and desensitization.
News is toxic for societies
First, the tendency to personalize and politicize the news has a polarizing impact on democracy. Media users fall into increasingly targeted, narrowcast streams of information and, therefore, become less likely to encounter input that challenges their partisan views.
Second, humankind is susceptible to fads, hypes and hysterias. News leads to collective neurosis. As a matter of fact, every large-scale collective neurosis has been driven by news. There is no other way to generate one.
Third, stories portraying acts of violence have an inordinately negative impact at many levels. Psychological scars – induced by chronic stress, horrifying images and traumatic memories – do not heal easily. News adds to health costs.
News massively increase cognitive errors
News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. We automatically, systematically filter out evidence that contradicts our preconceptions in favor of confirming evidence. 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.” That is the confirmation bias. News consumption, especially the ability to customize our news intake, exacerbates this human flaw. The result is that we walk around in a cloud of seemingly confirming data – even when our theories about ourselves and the world may be wrong. We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities.
News not only feeds the confirmation bias. There is another cognitive error at play: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that “make sense” – even if they don’t correspond to reality. And news organizations are happy to deliver those fake stories. Instead of just reporting that the stock market declined (or increased) by 2%, they say “the market declined by 2% because of X”. X can be a bank profit forecast, fear about the Euro, non-farm payroll statistics, a Fed decision, a terrorist attack in Madrid, a subway strike in New York, a handshake between two presidents, anything, really.
This reminds me of high school. My text book specified seven reasons (not six, not eight) why the French Revolution broke out. Fact is, we don’t know why the French Revolution broke out. And especially not why in 1789. And we don’t know why the stock market moved as it moved. There are just too many factors that go into it. We don’t know why an airplane crashed or why the oil price jumped. We don’t know. Any journalist who writes “the market moved because of X” or “the company went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot. Of course, X might have had a casual influence, but it’s far from established, and there are most likely influences that are much greater than X. To a large degree, news reports consist of nothing but stories and anecdotes that end up substituting for coherent analyses. I am fed up with this cheap way of “explaining” the world. It’s inappropriate. It’s irrational. It’s forgery. And I don’t let my thinking get contaminated by it.
News inhibits thinking
Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News items are like free-floating radicals that interfere with clear thinking. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. This is not about stealing time (see reason 9). This is about the inability to think clearly when you open up yourself to the factoid stream.
News makes us into shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory.
»The passageway from working memory to long-term memory forms a bottleneck in our brain. While the long-term memory has an almost unlimited capacity, working memory can hold only a relatively small amount of information at a time (try repeating a 10-digit phone number if you hear it for the first time). That short-term storage is fragile: A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind.« Because news disrupts concentration, it actively weakens comprehension.
You don’t visit Paris or speed through the Museum of Modern Art in two minutes. Why not? Because the brain needs spool-up time. Building up concentration takes a minimum of a 10-minute read. At minimum. If it is less, your brain will processes the information superficially and barely store it. News pieces are like wind hitting your cheek. Ask yourself: What are the top twenty news pieces from a month ago (that are no longer in the news today). So, why would you want to consume something that doesn’t stick?
Even worse with online news. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that the comprehension declines as hyperlinks in a document increase. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which itself is distracting. News consumers are suckers for irrelevancy. Online news consumers are the biggest suckers. News is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. Besides a lack of glucose in your blood stream, news distraction is the biggest limitation on clear thinking.
News changes the structure of your brain
News works like a drug. It feeds compulsive information-seeking behavior (CISB). The uninterrupted supply makes us crave more. As stories develop, we naturally want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary story lines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore.
Why is news addictive? Once you get into the habit of checking the news, you are driven to check it even more often. Your attention is set on fast-breaking events, so you hunger for more data about them. This has to do with a process called long-term potentiation (LTP) and the reward circuits in your brain. Addicts seek more of an addictive substance to get their fix, because they need more stimulation than non-addicts to reach a satisfying reward threshold. If you set your attention on other things – like literature, science, art, history, cooking, pet grooming, whatever – you will become more focused on those things. That’s just how the brain works. It’s a simple cognitive process.
People used to think that our brain, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. The human brain is highly plastic. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the consumption of news, we end up with a different brain. Adaptation to news occurs at a biological level. News reprograms us. That means our brain works differently even when we’re not consuming news. And that’s dangerous.
The more news we consume, the more we are exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to read and absorb longish articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their time schedules got denser. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed. In the words of Professor Michael Merzenich (University of California, San Francisco), a pioneer in the field of neuroplasticity: “We are training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”
Hear me: Deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking. When you consume news, your brain structurally changes. And this means that the way you think changes. Regaining the capacity for concentration and contemplation will take nothing but a radical news diet.
 Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains, Wired, May 2010
News is costly
News wastes time. It exacts exorbitant costs.
News taxes productivity three ways. First, count the consumption-time that news demands. That’s the time you actually waste reading or watching the news.
Second, tally up the refocusing time – or switching cost. That’s the time you waste trying to get back to what you were doing before the news interrupted you. You have to collect your thoughts. What were you about to do? Every time you disrupt your work to check the news, reorienting yourself could easily waste minutes.
Third, news distracts us even hours after we’ve digested today’s hot items. News stories and images pop into our minds hours, sometimes days later and will constantly interrupt your train of thought. Why would you want to do that to you?
If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, you’re eating up substantial time. Then, add five minutes here and there when you’re at work, plus distraction and refocusing-time. You will lose productive hours totaling at least half a day every week. Half a day – and for what?
On a global level, the loss in potential productivity is huge. Take the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, where terrorists murdered some 200 people in an act of chilling exhibitionism. Imagine that a billion people devoted, on average, one hour of their attention to the Mumbai tragedy: following the news, watching some talking head on TV, thinking about it. The number is a wild guess, but the guess is far from a wild number. There are more than a billion people in India alone. Many there spent whole days following the drama. One billion people times one hour is one billion hours, which is more than 100,000 years. The global average life expectancy is today 66 years. So nearly 2,000 lives were swallowed by news consumption. It’s far more than the number of people murdered, by any standards. In a sense, the newscasters became unwilling bedfellows of the terrorists.
Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. Why give it away so easily? You are not that irresponsible with your money, your reputation or your health. Why then give away your mind?
News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement
Individual reputation affects how people cooperate in society. In our ancestral past, a person’s reputation was directly linked to his or her achievements. You saw that your fellow tribe member killed a tiger single handedly and you spread word of his bravery.
With the advent of mass-produced news, the strange concept of “fame” entered our society. Fame is misleading because generally people become famous for reasons that have little relevance to our lives. The media grants fame to movie stars and news anchors for scant reason. News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement. The tragedy is that their notoriety crowds out the achievements of those who make more substantive contributions.
News is produced by journalists
Some journalists take time with their stories and try to think things through. But like any profession, and probably more so than in any other profession, journalism has its incompetent, unfair practitioners who don’t have the time – or the capacity – for deep analysis. Often, they are paid by the piece, the line, or the word. You might not be able to tell the difference between a polished professional and a rushed, glib, paid-by-the-piece writer with an ax to grind. It all looks like news.
Fewer than ten percent of the news stories are original. Fewer than one percent are truly investigative. And only once every fifty years journalists uncover a Watergate. The rest is cobbled together from other news reports, common knowledge and whatever the journalist can find on the internet. Many journalists, in their rushed schedule, blindly copy from each other. The copying and the copying of the copies not only multiplies the flaws in the stories but also the irrelevance.
Reported facts are sometimes wrong, forecasts always
Sometimes, reported facts are simply mistaken. With reduced editorial budgets at major publications, fact checking may be an endangered step in the news process.
The New Yorker Magazine was legendary for their fact checking. When an article mentioned the Empire State Building, the fact checking department would go out and visually verify that, in fact, the building was still standing. I don’t know if the story is true, but it highlights a point. Today, the fact checker has become an endangered species in most news companies.
Many news stories include predictions, but accurately predicting anything in our complex world is impossible. Overwhelming evidence indicates that forecasts by journalists and by experts in finance, social development, global conflicts and technology are almost always completely wrong. So, why consume that junk?
Did the newspapers predict World War I, the Great Depression, the sexual revolution, the fall of the Soviet empire, the rise of the Internet, resistance to antibiotics, the fall of Europe’s birth rate or the explosion in depression cases? Maybe, you’d find one or two correct predictions in a sea of millions of mistaken ones. Incorrect forecast are not only useless, they are harmful.
To increase the accuracy of your predictions, cut out the news and roll the dice or. If you are ready for depth, read books to understand the invisible generators that affect our world.
News is manipulative
News is the perfect Trojan horse. Few bits of news arrive without a hidden agenda, and many news stories crop up with big obvious agendas.
Our evolutionary past has equipped us with a good bullshit detector for face-to-face interactions. We automatically use many clues to detect manipulation, clues that go beyond the verbal message and include gesture, facial expression, signs of nervousness such as sweaty palms, blushing and body odor. Living in small bands of people, we almost always knew the background of the messenger. Information always came with a rich set of meta data. Today, even conscientious readers find that distinguishing even-handed news stories from ones that have a private agenda is difficult and energy consuming. Why go through that?
Reporting is biased. Stories are selected or slanted to please advertisers (advertising bias) or the owners of the media (corporate bias), and here is a tendency to report what everyone else is reporting, and to avoid stories that will offend anyone (mainstream bias).
The PR industry is as large as the news reporting industry – the best proof that journalists and news organizations can be manipulated. Corporations, interest groups and other organizations would not expend these huge sums if PR didn’t work. If journalists with their natural skepticism towards powerful organizations can be manipulated, what makes you think you can escape it?
Take the Nurse Nayirah story. Nayirah was a fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti girl, who alleged that she had witnessed the murder of infant children by Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait, in verbal testimony to the U.S. Congress, in the run up to the 1991 Gulf War. Virtually every media outlet covered the story. The U.S. public was in rage, which in turn pushed the congress closer to approving the war. Her testimony, which was regarded as credible at the time by all the media outlets, has since come to be regarded as wartime propaganda.
Look back over the 20th century and ask yourself how many atrocities could have been prevented if the majority of people would have followed a simple news diet. It’s a wild thought.
There is more: Journalism shapes a common picture of the world and a common set of narratives for discussing it. It sets the public agenda. Hold on: do we really want the newsmakers to influence the public agenda? I believe that agenda setting by the media is just bad democracy.
News makes us passive
News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. This sets readers up to have a fatalistic outlook on the world.
Compare this with our ancestral past, where you could act upon practically every bit of news. Our evolutionary past prepared us to act on information, but the daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It zaps our energy. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitized, sarcastic and fatalistic.
If the human brain encounters a barrage of ambiguous information without being able to act upon that information, it can lead to passivity and a sense of victimhood. The scientific term is learned helplessness. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression. Viewed on a timeline, the spread of depression coincides almost perfectly with the growth and maturity of the mass media. It could turn out to be a coincidence, and I am skeptical about this type of conjecture, but I don’t want to leave it unmentioned.
News gives us the illusion of caring
Kathleen Norris (even if I don’t share most of her ideas) said it best: “We may want to believe that we are still concerned, as our eyes drift from a news anchor announcing the latest atrocity to the NBA scores and stock market quotes streaming across the bottom of the screen. But the ceaseless bombardment of image and verbiage makes us impervious to caring.”
News wraps us in a warm global feeling. We are all world citizens. We are all connected. The planet is just one global village. We sing the “We-are-the-World” song and wave the little flame of our lighters in perfect harmony with thousands of others. It’s a glowing and fuzzy feeling that delivers the illusion of care but doesn’t get us anywhere. I haven’t had the time to put my finger on it, but this allure for anything global smells like a gigantic chimera. Like a religion. Fact is, we are not connected because we consume news. We are connected because we trade.
News kills creativity
Things we already know severely impact creativity. This is one reason why mathematicians, novelists, composers or entrepreneurs produce their most creative works at a young age. They are oblivious to much that has been tried before. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that allows them to come up with 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. On the other hand, I know a whole bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs.
The creativity-killing effect of news might also be owned to something simpler we’ve discussed before: distraction. I just can’t imagine producing novel ideas with the distraction that news is sure to deliver. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t read news.
What to do instead
Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey.
Make news as inaccessible as possible. Delete the news apps from your iPhone. Sell your TV. Cancel your newspaper subscriptions. Do not pick up newspapers and magazines that lie around in airports and train stations. Do not set the browser default to a news site. Pick a site that never changes. The more stale the better. Delete all news sites from your browser’s favorites list. Delete the news widgets from your desktop.
If you want to keep the illusion of “not missing anything important”, I suggest you glance through the summary page of the Economist once a week. Don’t waste more than five minutes on it.
Read magazines and books which explain the world – Science, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. Go for magazines that connect the dots and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – or from purely entertaining you. The world is complicated, and there is nothing we can do about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity. Try reading a book a week. Better two or three. History is good. Biology. Psychology. That way you’ll learn to understand the underlying mechanisms of the world. Go deep instead of broad. Enjoy material that truly interests you. Have fun reading.
The first week will be the hardest. Deciding not to check the news while you are thinking, writing or reading takes discipline. You are fighting your brain’s built-in tendency. Initially, you will feel out of touch or even socially isolated. Every day you will be tempted to check your favorite news Web site. Don’t do it. Stick to the cold-turkey plan. Go 30 days without news. After 30 days, you will have a more relaxed attitude toward the news. You will find that you have more time, more concentration and a better understanding of the world.
After a while, you will realize that despite your personal news blackout, you have not missed – and you’re not going to miss – any important facts. If some bit of information is truly important to your profession, your company, your family or your community, you will hear it in time – from your friends, your mother in law or whoever you talk to or see. When you are with your friends, ask them if anything important is happening in the world. The question is a great conversation starter. Most of the time, the answer will be: “not really.”
Are you afraid that living a news-free existence will make you an outcast at parties? Well, you might not know that Paris Hilton is in jail (I don’t know, I am making this up), but you will have more intelligent facts to share – about the cultural meaning of the food you are eating or the discovery of exosolar planets. Never be shy about your news diet. People will be fascinated.
Society needs journalism – but in a different way.
Investigative journalism is relevant in any society. We need more hard-core journalists digging into meaningful stories. We need reporting that polices our society and uncovers the truth. The best example is Watergate. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Often, reporting is not time sensitive. Longish journal articles and books are fine forums for investigative journalism – and now that you’ve gone cold turkey on the news, you’ll have time to read them.