MEDIA WATCH: If we want to understand the world around us, we might be better off without news and current affairs

By   /   November 29, 2014  /   12 Comments

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Modern life is busy. News, current affairs and ‘factual’ content is constantly available, constantly clamouring for our attention at every waking moment (where are you now as you read this blog?) Daily news has become hourly and minute by minute updates, streaming and screaming to get our attention. And keeping us locked into fast thinking.

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Psychologist Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, a depressing but impressive book that is the culmination of his life’s work.

Kahnemann proposes that people think in two different modes – ‘fast’ and ‘slow’. Fast thinking is intuitive and easy thinking that we do in conversation with friends. It’s creative, comfortable and straightforward.

Slow thinking in contrast requires deep deliberation, concentration and a focus on evidence. It’s what we do when writing essays or carrying out a statistical analysis or deciding on the correct approach to a complex problem. Slow thinking is not about being slow-witted, it’s about taking your time to come to a greater understanding. But time is becoming harder and harder to come by.

Modern life is busy. News, current affairs and ‘factual’ content is constantly available, constantly clamouring for our attention at every waking moment (where are you now as you read this blog?) Daily news has become hourly and minute by minute updates, streaming and screaming to get our attention. And keeping us locked into fast thinking.

The problem with fast thinking is that if information seems familiar we often make judgements that are simplistic and wrong. If it’s too hard we often substitute a simpler question for one we don’t understand. We are often overly influenced by associated information – a particular colour or typeface, a likeable face, the context set in a previous paragraph. Thinking, Fast and Slow shows that all the tricks by which journalists, politicians and PR/Bloggers twist the truth are made possible by peculiarities of the human mind.

As a review of the book in the Progressive Populist notes:

“The mind will tend to make decisions based on the principle of what you see is all there is (WYSIATI), which means that people will assume that all the information at their disposal is all the information that is relevant to a decision. By their selection of criteria, writers create a world of facts that readers tend to take as WYSIATI, which is why propaganda techniques that involve selection and non-selection work. No one bothers to ask why only the rightwing anti-labor expert is being asked about the impact of the strike, or why none of the options being discussed involves adding taxes to the wealthy. We just accept the facts and experts the media selects for us.

As if to ram this point home, the NZ Herald’s latest advertising catch-cry is ‘everything that really matters’.

It’s up to us as individuals and citizens to take responsibility for our own information but in the mad rush of modern life, having reliable, scrupulous and independent mainstream media would help.

 

Jan Rivers is a Coalition for Better Broadcasting Member. This piece is based on an earlier blog available here.
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12 Comments

  1. schwen says:

    which is why, rather than limiting your reading to one or other of the partisan blogs, you are better indulging in the ranting and squealing from both perspectives in order to make your OWN balanced judgement of today’s issues.

      • schwen says:

        what you read here and other left wing blogs, and what you can read on the right wing sites, are rarely in alignment, and almost never without a partisan bias. I just think it’s better to be informed of opinions from both sides of an argument (no matter how extreme or outlandish they may appear) in order to make one’s own judgement. The quantum and volume of the ranting and squealing seems to be the only thing that is balanced across the divide.

    • Dan says:

      SCHWEN is correct. Have a read of both sides. Be aware rightly or wrongly, that not every comment submitted to this site is actually published on this site.

  2. dave brown says:

    You can save yourself the time of ‘slow thinking’ by not doing it all from scratch.

    There is plenty of analysis of the main world views underlying cultural sphere of modern capitalism.

    Its a matter of picking out that which explains the global chaos and using it as a turbo to convert slow thinking into fast analysis.

    Personally I prefer Karl Marx who explains how the neo-liberal world view is the default ideology of capitalism arising from the fetishization of production relations as exchange relations.

    No matter how much ‘slow thinking’ you do, this is designed to prevent any ‘fast action’.

    Then add some Gramsci on how this fetishized ideology is transmitted by the paid intellectuals who serve the interests of the capitalist class.

    It then becomes ‘human nature’ and used to beat us with.

    Grasping this is the turbo charger that speeds up the ‘slow thinking’ so that we actually get to the ‘fast acting’.

    • Jan Rivers says:

      Thanks. You are right there are good resources to understand and analyse and to provide a reliable frame of reference to guide action if you know where to look. I agree on the importance of analysis and the relative lack of a shared analysis of things class and the economy as well as financialisation, the power of propaganda and our reliance on the physical environment is a huge issue for NZ’s future.

      I read Kahnmann’s fast thinking as the thinking we do under conditions of trust. We don’t have the time for a critical / analytical approach to everything we read. However much of the prevailing news media lets us down in this respect. Politician sound-byes are often echoed uncritically, critical information is simply missing and a kind of “common-sense” pseudo-neutrality which avoids the consideration of alternatives pervades much of the mainstream news. I would argue our trust in the mainstream media is often misplaced even on its own terms of steady state, ‘mainstream capitalist market economy let alone in it’s ability to enthuse about radical alternatives:-)

  3. elle says:

    Slow thinkers are usually left behind in todays world, Rodans sculpture of the Thinker used to mean something,now the press tell people what to think ,and keep repeating it till it becomes truth
    Todays Herald Armstrong writes John Key has been a naughty boy but it hasn’t made a dent in public opinion,so people believe it and slide over the facts.
    Maybe its lazy indifferent thinkers that are the problem,slow thinkers absorb things and mostly analyse.

  4. cleangreen says:

    You point out that time is against the practice of slow thinking.

    “Slow thinking in contrast requires deep deliberation, concentration and a focus on evidence. It’s what we do when writing essays or carrying out a statistical analysis or deciding on the correct approach to a complex problem. Slow thinking is not about being slow-witted, it’s about taking your time to come to a greater understanding. But time is becoming harder and harder to come by.”

    This means effectively that in our highly driven “economic potential” world, those investigative Journalists who provide slow deep deliberation, concentration and focus on evidence, are now along with us all, a victim of an economics driven society?

    Now this has been designed possibly deliberately as a tool to prevent those slow thinking investigative Journalists from criticising using slow deep deliberation, concentration and focus on evidence investigative Journalism of those “captains of the economic driven economy model” and the repercussions of their activities.

    We are a much poorer society for having a commercial media today as you have clearly pointed out, so we advocate beginning a public fundraising to begin a “free radio and TV network investigative Journalism media public service as we will commit to a donation get a fundraising platform started folks please.

  5. Jan Rivers says:

    Thanks. Well said. Alain de Botton’s recent book The News: a user’s manual is really good on how Gotcha and spectacle override a more informative approach. We all read about Roger Sutton’s ignominious fall from grace but very little about the challenges of CERA in working under constraints of budget and limits to democracy or whether locating CERA within the PM’s office is a good thing – close to the centre for better attention or whether it’s simply a consolidation of power.

    As for crowd funding for public media. I’d be interested to hear your ideas.

  6. countryboy says:

    It’s very comforting to me, to see the psychology of the process of life being made clear. It’s like mowing the lawn. The lost toys are discovered good work.

  7. Kim Dandy says:

    Would I pay to get a free to air media that was truly unbiased, with slow-thinking journalistic views of current events? Yes I would. Now where do I donate?

  8. wild katipo says:

    Yep…us slow thinkers look at our weekly low wage pay packets and think ”HOLY SHIT ”!!!……and then watch John XkeySCORE bullshitting again and reckon he’s a real bad bastard .

    That’s about the best analyses of the situation I keep coming up with.