If news makes us sick, Twitter must be a cancer; News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier

If news makes us sick, Twitter must be a cancer

BY HAMISH MCKENZIE 

ON APRIL 15, 2013

On Friday, the Guardian ran a provocative op-ed by Rolf Dobelli arguing that news is bad for our health and hinders our thinking. The much-discussed article, which the author had first written two years ago, was excerpted from the soon-to-be-released “The Art of Thinking Clearly,” a compendium of essays penned by theself-described “serial entrepreneur, thinker and writer.”*

Dolbelli’s argument is that “news is to the mind what sugar is to the body.” Not only does it distract us from wider issues, but it tells us stuff we don’t need to know, has a toxic effect on our bodies, inhibits our thinking, wastes our time, and makes us passive. Heavy stuff!Dobelli’s argument is impassioned and somewhat persuasive, if simultaneously reductive. For instance, Dobelli too breezily discounts the importance of news in being the first draft of history, keeping citizens informed of issues that affect them immediately, if not in the longer term. He suggests that news consumption is a competitive disadvantage, because while we are adept at recognizing information that is new, we’re not so good at recognizing what’s relevant. While he correctly identifies an impulse to obsess over, and be distracted by, the new, he doesn’t give utilitarian news – “it’s dangerous to travel there,” “it’s going to rain tomorrow,” “there has been a coup” – its full due.

But that’s an argument for another time. Instead, let’s consider the tech perspective. From a tech point of view, one of the most relevant things about Dobelli’s argument is that you could substitute “Twitter” for “news” in the essay and find that it still makes perfectly good sense. In fact, Dobelli’s argument might be even more relevant to Twitter than it is to news. That’s partly because our Tweet streams are all just a continuously updated “news” page, feeding us morsels of information ranging from the inane to the important that distract our attention all in the name of captivating it. If news is a creativity-crushing attention sap that makes us sick, then Twitter must be like the malarial mosquito that acts a more portable vector for the wider disease.

Take, for example, the news surrounding the explosions at the Boston marathon today. As people rushed to Tweet photos, videos, and messages about the explosions, we got information in fast-flying fragments, but no clear overall picture until the story was later weaved into a narrative by news organizations. Dobelli might argue that even the high-level reported version of the “news” is bad, because it focuses public attention on a single event that highlights the immediate drama at the expense of a deeper, more contextualized understanding of the bigger story. If that’s the case, though, then whatever facts, half-truths, and speculation gushed out over Twitter as the public came to learn more about the explosions could be considered even more harmful.

I am not here trying to make the argument that Twitter consumption is necessarily harmful to us, but I would argue that if you see any merit in Dobelli’s argument about news being bad for us, then you have to see Twitter in the same light.

Let’s consider the points Dobelli makes against news in his essay, except with “Twitter” inserted as the culprit instead of “news.”

Twitter misleads. … Twitter leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.

We are not rational enough to be exposed to Twitter. Watching an airplane crash on television [or seeing photos of the explosions from the Boston marathon] is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability.

Twitter is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories [and tens of thousands of Tweets] you have read in the last 12 months, name one 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 news is irrelevant to you… Media organisations want you to believe that Twitter offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we’re cut off from the flow of Twitter. In reality, Twitter consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less Twitter you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.

Twitter has no explanatory power. Twitter items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect.

Twitter is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky Tweets spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (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.

Twitter increases cognitive errors. Twitter feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias… 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.

Twitter inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. Tweets are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. Twitter makes us shallow thinkers.

Twitter works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore… The more Twitter we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus.

Twitter wastes time. If you read Twitter for 15 minutes each morning, then check Twitter for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add five minutes here and there when you’re at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week.

Twitter makes us passive. Tweets are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of Tweets about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”.

Twitter kills creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age… If you want to come up with old solutions, read Twitter. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.

Dobelli concludes his essay by saying while news is bad, longform and investigative journalism are always relevant. So, now might be a good time to step away from your computer and your smartphone. Go for a walk. Read a book. Spend an hour just rubbing your chin.

And, whatever you do, don’t forget to share this on Twitter.

* I always find it odd when people describe themselves as “thinkers,” as if the act of cognition is a special achievement deserving of memorialization in one’s LinkedIn profile. If Dobelli weren’t lucky enough to be able to write sentences or start businesses, would that mean that he would only describe himself as a “thinker”? That’s kind like saying, “Oxygen breather.”

News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier

News is bad for your health. It leads to fear and aggression, and hinders your creativity and ability to think deeply. The solution? Stop consuming it altogether

Rolf Dobelli, The Guardian, Friday 12 April 2013 20.00 BST

Out of the ­10,000 news stories you may have read in the last 12 months, did even one allow you to make a better decision about a serious matter in your life, asks Rolf Dobelli. Photograph: Guardian/Graphic

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that 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 saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.

News misleads. Take the following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.

We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability. If you think you can compensate 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 about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognise what’s new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we’re cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.

News has no explanatory power. News items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect. The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. If more information leads to higher economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That’s not the case.

News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (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 glucocorticoid 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 and desensitisation.

News 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. 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. Any journalist who writes, “The market moved because of X” or “the company went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way of “explaining” the world.

News inhibits 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-range 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 a choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens 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 like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore. Scientists used to think that the dense connections formed among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls were largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy 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 schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.

News wastes time. 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, then add five minutes here and there when you’re at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. 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.

News kills creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our 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. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

I have now gone without news for four years, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first-hand: less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

This is an edited extract from an essay first published at dobelli.com. The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions by Rolf Dobelli is published by Sceptre, £9.99. Buy it for £7.99 atguardianbookshop.co.uk

Turning off the news and tuning into the flow

abnormalreturnsApril 16th, 2013

Over the weekend Rolf Dobelli, author of the forthcoming The Art of Thinking Clearly, had a piece at The Guardian on the dangers of reading the news entitled: “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.” This piece wasn’t new to me because I cited an earlier version of this piece in my book, Abnormal Returns: Winning Strategies from the Frontline of the Investment Blogosphere in a chapter on smarter media consumption. In that chapter I write about the dangers of inveterate news reading and the value of a “news diet” for investors.

Dobelli’s piece not surprisingly it got a lot of play amongst the news reading crowd, because it attacks head on the habits of many on Twitter and the blogosphere. Hamish Mckenzie at Pando Daily took Dobelli’s point and pushed it even farther. McKenzie notes how if reading the news is bad, then “Twitter is cancer.”  Twitter is essentially the news on crack coming at us a mile a minute, 140 characters at a time. McKenzie writes:

In fact, Dobelli’s argument might be even more relevant to Twitter than it is to news. That’s partly because our Tweet streams are all just a continuously updated “news” page, feeding us morsels of information ranging from the inane to the important that distract our attention all in the name of captivating it. If news is a creativity-crushing attention sap that makes us sick, then Twitter must be like the malarial mosquito that acts a more portable vector for the wider disease.

In a sense Twitter is re-wiring our brains, and not necessarily for the better. Dobelli writes:

News works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore. Scientists used to think that the dense connections formed among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls were largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy 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 schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Twitter is the “ultimate dopamine dispensary.” Something that investors need to approach with a fair bit of caution. I wrote:

Twitter is like anything else a tool, a tool that we need to use with care and caution. Investors therefore have to make an important calculation. To what degree are they willing to miss out on certain information in order to avoid the time and energy required to wade through the daily dross? Every investor has to answer this question for themselves, usually through some process of trial and error. What investors need to avoid are the high costs of becoming addicted those dopamine hits that come so easily on Twitter. In the end investing isn’t about the temporary euphoria of novel information but putting into practice a well thought out, long-term investing strategy. Something that rarely gets those dopamine receptors humming.

Josh Brown at The Reformed Broker has in his own way has got this conundrum figured out. In a post riffing on Dobelli’s he notes how is by immersing himself in the news flow he is better able to identify those things that are truly irrelevant. Brown writes:

I’m always consuming the news. That’s my secret. 

I’m living inside of it, swimming in it. And I know how it gets made, who makes it and what the motivation is behind all of the stories and breaking blasts and so on.

I know how and why one thing becomes a news story while another thing is overlooked and forgotten about.

And as a result of this bombardment, I am almost totally immune to it. I consume it and discard it. I take what I want from it and move on. I never get scared and I never get euphoric and I almost never react or make big decisions based on it.

Unfortunately few investors have the time or ability to do what Brown does. One of the reasons we investors consume the news is that we think it will provide us more information with which to make better, more profitable decisions. We think this incremental information will somehow give us an “edge.” The challenge with this thinking is that more information may increase the confidence in our decisions but it does little to increase their accuracy. I would argue that it isn’t the latest information that makes us better investors it is the ability to analyze the news and information in a dispassionate way that provides investors with an edge. From my book:

The news itself is often less important than the reaction to the news. By disconnecting from the often entertaining and always enticing news flow, we can better see the crucial interplay between what happens and how markets react. This perspective is difficult to achieve under the best of circumstances. If you are inundated with the noisy media, it is nearly impossible.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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