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The Cost of Paying Attention

Posted on July 23, 2019

As a way of giving ourselves a break from writing new Insights during the busiest portion of the summer it has become an annual tradition to repost this series on some of the various pitfalls of obsessively consuming news and information. These posts contain timeless wisdom that we constantly need to be reminded of, and we think they have become even more relevant over the past several years since first written in 2014. This is part two of four. Enjoy! 

“Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is.” – Rolf Dobelli

Megaphone.jpgLast week we re-introduced a four-part Weekly Insight series on how the regular consumption of news might actually be detrimental to decision making. We covered the first five “toxic dangers” of news as laid out in Rolf Dobelli’s research paper entitled Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet. If you did not have a chance to read last week’s post, Brain Sugar, we would encourage you to do so before continuing the series here. Now let’s continue with a look at the next five of Dobelli’s dangers… 

Danger #6: News inhibits thinking 

Dobelli makes the claim that the habitual consumption of news makes us shallow thinkers, inhibiting our ability to truly comprehend and retain important information.

Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News items are like free-floating radicals that interfere with clear thinking. … News is an interruption system. It seizes your attention only to scramble it.

We have two types of memory. One type is reserved for long-range retention, but our short-term memory is reserved for small amounts of “slippery” information. In order for information to pass from one to the other, which is to say in order for it to be fully comprehended and retained, the brain needs what Dobelli describes as “spooling time”. The constancy and shallowness of irrelevant news, especially via online channels, prevents such spooling time from occurring.

Ask yourself: What are the top ten news items from a month ago (that are no longer in the news today)? If you have a hard time remembering, you are not alone. Why would you want to consume something that doesn’t add to your body of knowledge?

Danger #7: News changes the structure of your brain

This one might be difficult to swallow at first, but Dobelli is merely pointing out the chemistry behind how our brains are designed to function. Science has shown that the anatomy of our brains is not “set in stone”, but rather is physiologically changing over time as nerve cells constantly break and form new connections.

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 read and absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless.

In other words our brain is equivalent to a series of muscles that can grow lazy and out of shape over time with lack of exercise. We need to set aside the news bites and dedicate time to serious, thoughtful reading and thinking in order to keep that part of our mind in shape.

Danger #8: News is costly

Dobelli argues that there are three “productivity taxes” associated with reading the news. The first is the mere consumption time, the second is the time it takes to refocus on whatever else you were doing and the third is the distraction that exists inside our cluttered minds even hours after exposure.

Consider someone who spends 15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes at lunch and 15 minutes in the evening reading or watching the news. Throw in a handful of additional check-ins on the mobile phone throughout the day and it’s easy to see how an hour or even more is quickly consumed by this habit. Over the course of a week that sums up to nearly a full days’ worth of work and productivity, while over the course of a year it amounts to more than fifteen days’ worth of consuming news – and for what?

Danger #9: News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement

Okay, we would probably chalk this one up to an “annoying reality” rather than calling it a “toxic danger”. Dobelli’s point here is that the advent of mass-produced news ushered in a new level and understanding of “fame”. Movie stars, athletes and pop-culture personalities are escorted to the top of the fame food chain by news outlets. Why? Because that’s what people find interested, so that’s what sells. Thus, news “sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement”.

Danger #10: News is produced by journalists

The fact that news is produced by journalists means there is a risk that a particular article was written by someone who doesn’t fully understand, or who didn’t take the time to fully vet, the subject material. This danger has become more prevalent as online news has ballooned in recent years. Dobelli estimates that less than 10% of news stories are even original, and less than 1% are truly investigative.

The copying and the copying of the copies multiply the flaws in the stories and their irrelevance.

We can’t help but see the irony in the fact that here we sit, penning an Insight based directly on Dobelli’s research. One has to wonder if he would object!

If nothing else, we hope this conversation sparks some thought and illuminates less than ideal habits in our daily media consumption routines. Are we setting aside enough time for deep, meaningful reading and thinking? Are we counting the true cost of paying attention? Are we conducting proper due diligence to ensure the sources of our news are thorough and accurate? These questions are all worth considering, and we’ll unveil even more considerations next week when we conclude our review of Dobelli’s paper.


david_headshot_bw.jpgAuthor David Houle, CFA is a founding member of Season Investments. He serves as the firm's Chief Compliance Officer as well as sitting on the investment committee overseeing the management of client assets. David spent nearly ten years in various roles primarily managing individual client assets prior to co-founding Season Investments. David graduated with a degree in Finance from Colorado University in Colorado Springs in 2003 and earned the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation in 2006. David and his wife Mandy have three children and spend most of their free time with friends and family.


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