The danger of reading the news too often

2016-08-13

in Books and literature, Psychology, Writing

I have been listening to an audiobook of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s: Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. It’s full of interesting concepts and engaging writing.

In one passage, Taleb describes the anxiety of the investor who feels the need to constantly check on how well an investment is doing. Has the value risen or fallen over the last month? Day? Minute? Second?

He describes a number of statistical and psychological features of such situations, but one seems possible to apply to estimating the ideal frequency of news-checking.

Taleb argues that with the investment, we generally see smaller jitters in value when we choose to look up the current value more often. Furthermore, and critically, we are likely to suffer more every time we see a drop in value than we are to celebrate when we see a gain — one of the ways in which people are demonstrably not ‘rational’ in the sense of valuing mathematically identical outcomes differently for emotional reasons.

Something similar may accompany the temptation to open a browser window to check Google News, open Twitter on your phone, glance at Facebook, or otherwise deliberately seek a new set of general updates about the broader state of the world. Given additional biases in the media, the odds are probably under 50% that any news story you have not seen before will be ‘positive’, at least for people who prefer a minimum amount of violence and suffering in the world. In particular, because violence is so emotionally salient to us, it tends to both dominate media coverage and draw the most attention when mixed in with other types of news stories.

If we feel the ‘losses’ in human welfare more acutely than the gains, checking for updates too frequently may lead us to develop and maintain an overly discouraged perspective on the world. This becomes even more likely when we take into account the seemingly irrational way in which our brains excessively prioritize what seems to be happening right now. Reading about the ongoing active shooter situation, with new updates coming in all the time, may be fundamentally more traumatizing than reading about the whole incident once it has been resolved (or at least moved to the next stage — the arrest, the trial, the post-massacre political analysis).

Perhaps it makes sense to intentionally curtail time spent following current news in favour (at least) of waiting for the summary (if any) in a weekly news magazine or, even better, working through the pages of a dusty book that has influenced the thinking of many people.

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