Junk Food for the Mind

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“To see things in their true proportion, to escape the magnifying influence of a morbid imagination, should be one of the chief aims of life.” – William Edward Hartpole Lecky

Recently, I enjoyed a great article at The Happiness Project entitled “Avoid the Dangerous Allure of “Potato Chip” News.” The article compares most news reporting to “potato chips” – it’s meant to cause a very quick emotional response that goes away quickly and leaves you yearning for more, but doesn’t provide any real depth.

Quite a lot of modern life is like that. For example, if your Facebook page is anything like my own, it’s mostly filled with people posting very quick glimpses of the great things they’ve done that go by in a flash, or they post pictures that show an extremely simplified view of a political or social issue meant solely to evoke a quick response rather than a thoughtful one (yes, both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of it).

Marketing companies do this, too. They’ll do anything to get a product or a corporate logo in front of your eyes and ears along with an emotional response that will cause one thing to stick in your head – this product is good.

Grocery stores do it with the placement of product on the shelves. Text messages are “potato chips” as well. The list goes on and on.

The end result of all of this is that we jump to conclusions based on very little information. If someone or something pushes the right emotional button for us a few times, we’re likely to make up our minds about it in a strictly positive or negative fashion.

As a result, I have friends who are absolutely convinced that one particular motor company is strictly better than the rest, regardless of the type of automobile or the model or the model year. I have friends who absolutely believe that one political party is more correct than the other one on all issues (moral and otherwise). I have friends who will only shop at specific stores (regardless of price or customer service) and other friends who will basically buy any product that has their favorite sport logo on it (I’m referring to different friends with different logos on many different products).

Rather than letting facts be our guide, it’s incredibly easy to fall into a trap where bundles of quick emotional responses become our guide to our day to day choice in almost every avenue of life.

My solution is simple. I’ve been on an almost complete media diet for months.

I cannot remember the last time I watched the news on television. If I hear about a current event that actually might be relevant to me, I go to a facts-only source like Wikipedia, where current event articles are locked down and incredibly well-sourced. I’ve almost completely abandoned Facebook as well.

Instead, I’m trying to learn about things in depth. Rather than making up my mind quickly about politics and economics, I’m reading about how the Federal Reserve actually works from multiple books. Rather than paying attention to any ads or consumer “news,” I’m basically ignoring all information about consumer products unless I need something, at which point I specifically research the product.

What has been the result of this? Aside from a few items related directly to my hobbies, I cannot think of a single thing that I actually want to buy. I don’t feel compelled to buy anything at all beyond basic needs and I haven’t for the last few months – again, outside of a few hobby items.

Even more, I no longer feel like shouting from the rooftops when reading about views of any kind that I disagree with. Rather than getting upset because they don’t match my views, I find myself scratching my head and wanting to know more about why that person thinks that way. My “to-read” list of books is getting pretty long, I suppose, but that’s what the library system is for.

I have a really simple challenge for you. For the next few days, unless you have a specific program you’ve been planning to watch, turn off your television. Similarly, unless you have a specific task to fulfill, avoid the internet. (Well, except maybe The Simple Dollar.)

Just take a break from it. Use that time to do something else, like taking care of projects left undone in your life. If you find yourself bored (which you might), put on some music or go for a long walk or write a letter to someone or read a book or watch a documentary that covers an issue in depth or do some volunteer work or spend time with someone you care about.

If things work out anything like they have for me, you’ll find that a lot of powerful emotional triggers slide away from you. World news or political events won’t make you as angry or upset when you do hear about them. Even better, products won’t trigger responses for you, either.

You’ll start to lose the strong feelings you have one way or another about products and you’ll start relying more and more on hard information, like comparing nutrition facts and the price per unit or the actual data from a comparison article in Consumer Reports. Such choices will become easier, too, because you’ll find yourself with far less decision fatigue.

If you find it doesn’t help, there’s nothing stopping you from just picking back up where you left off. However, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that you begin to simply respond differently to things in your life after a while on a media diet.

Good luck!

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