The danger of reading the news too often


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.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan February 19, 2018 at 3:12 pm

Stephen Pinker discusses a related phenomenon:

The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences

News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

And among the things that do happen, the positive and negative ones unfold on different timelines. The news, far from being a “first draft of history,” is closer to play-by-play sports commentary. It focuses on discrete events, generally those that took place since the last edition (in earlier times, the day before; now, seconds before).

Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle. The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every 50 years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.

The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. In many walks of life this is a serviceable rule of thumb. But whenever a memory turns up high in the result list of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency—because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting—people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.

The consequences of negative news are themselves negative. Far from being better informed, heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling, and sometimes they part company with reality altogether: a 2016 poll found that a large majority of Americans follow news about Isis closely, and 77% agreed that “Islamic militants operating in Syria and Iraq pose a serious threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” a belief that is nothing short of delusional.

Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases, … complete avoidance of the news.” And they become fatalistic, saying things like “Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.”

Believing that following the news on a daily or hourly basis makes us well-informed may be wrong, because of the combination of our psychological limitations and the biases of news organizations.

Anon February 19, 2018 at 5:35 pm

A bit like the question of whether and how to cover mass shootings (with the risk of lending fame to the killer and encouraging more such acts), there is a tricky moral question here about how news organizations and journalists should incorporate the psychology of their audience.

This kind of mass systemic effect, where day-to-day news tends to be bad and news organizations are obsessed with what is most current, couldn’t be remedied by any plausible public policy remedy. It’s probably just the accidental consequence of technological development.

. February 20, 2018 at 8:00 am

It appears that Facebook did not, however, carefully think through the implications of becoming the dominant force in the news industry. Everyone in management cared about quality and accuracy, and they had set up rules, for example, to eliminate pornography and protect copyright. But Facebook hired few journalists and spent little time discussing the big questions that bedevil the media industry. What is fair? What is a fact? How do you signal the difference between news, analysis, satire, and opinion? Facebook has long seemed to think it has immunity from those debates because it is just a technology company—one that has built a “platform for all ideas.”

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