You want to make fact-based decisions instead of letting your emotions take over. Yet the more time you spend knee-deep in political news, the more frustrated, irritable, and stressed out you become.
How do you reconcile your desire to make well-informed choices, and your need to de-stress from the daily news?
It turns out that staying tuned in to the news isn’t the best way to gain wisdom or to make good decisions—in fact, it’s one of the worst.
The news is a source of information, not knowledge.
The Bible tells us:
“A discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly.” (Proverbs 15:14, BSB)
In a world where information is literally at our fingertips, it’s easy to mistake information for knowledge. Knowledge comes from studying issues, not from reading headlines or watching 20-minute press conferences.
In fact, a 30-second news spot (or even a 10-minute blurb) isn’t enough time to hear more than the bumper sticker version of an issue. And if the world’s problems could be reduced to bumper stickers, they’d have been resolved by now.
Stop watching the news
Reading (or watching) the news doesn’t make us better informed. And it certainly doesn’t cause us to make better decisions. In fact, research shows that the more information we have, the worse decisions we make. Here are 5 reasons why:
1. Your brain looks for evidence to support your beliefs
Although we like to think we carefully weigh each new piece of information before making a decision, it’s not true. On most issues, our brain decides fairly quickly—and then slants every new piece of evidence we hear to match what we already believe. Researchers call this the confirmation bias.
It’s more extreme than that, though. Your brain will notice evidence in favor of your viewpoint much more readily, and will easily dismiss evidence for the opposite viewpoint. This explains why people who watched the Republican or Democratic National Conventions with a view to understanding the ‘other side’ came away even more convinced that their party’s viewpoint was the correct one.
2. You’re over-confident in your opinions
Not only does your brain focus on the evidence that confirms your beliefs—and ignores the evidence that doesn’t—it changes how strongly you feel about an issue. With each new piece of evidence we log, our brains become more confident in our opinions—after all, look at all the evidence that’s piling up!
The problem is, just because we feel confident about something doesn’t make it true. Research shows that the more information we have, the more ingrained we become in our way of thinking. This overconfidence bias leads us to take stronger stances and perform riskier behaviors than if we’d had less information.
In a controversial political season, this may look like alienating friends and neighbors, or supporting a cause with more time, money, or energy than is wise in your current life situation.
3. You focus on what’s in front of you
Your brain is a high-powered statistical machine whose job is to analyze every piece of data you receive. And because of modern media, we’re exposed to events we never would have known about even 100 years ago—and we’re exposed to them over and over again. That’s not a good thing.
The more easily an event can be brought to mind, the more likely we are to overestimate the occurrence of that event—and the more likely we are to make bad decisions based on that wrong information. This availability bias ensures that we overestimate the importance of high-profile events and underestimate the impact of everyday activities.
Especially for highly emotional events, repetitive news coverage tricks our brains into believing that some situations—such as sex-trafficking and race-based murders—are much more common than they are, leading to a fear mindset that’s not conducive to solving those problems.
4. Your brain is easily tricked
Research shows that presenting the same information in a negative way versus a positive one changes how we respond—this is known as the framing effect. For instance, in one study, significantly more college students registered early for classes when warned of a penalty for late registration, compared to being offered a discount for early registration. (Do you see the fear and shame at work there?)
How does this affect us when we take in the news? Reports of death counts vs lives saved, or sharing the number of citizens employed vs the unemployment rate contribute to fear or hope—and we react accordingly. Likewise, any time an issue is described only by its positive (or negative) impact, it’s easy for our brains to assume that’s the only viewpoint.
5. Your favorite news source is biased
It’s a nice ideal that some media outlets are reliable and unbiased, but it just isn’t so. Whether your preferred news source is consciously trying to manipulate you or not, two things are true:
- The owners and newscasters have their own biases and are prone to the same decision-making mistakes as the rest of us.
- The main motive of any news source is profit, so the content they publish has been filtered through the “will this generate profit (or viewers)” lens.
It’s often laughable (or infuriating) how biased some sources are—but it makes complete sense when you recall that they’re just giving their viewers what they want.
What to do instead
If our thinking will always be tainted by these brain processes to some extent, how can we make well-informed decisions? The Bible gives clear instructions.
1. Pray for wisdom
“Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” because “wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peace-loving, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere.” (James 1:5, James 3:17)
2. Be wary of human thoughts
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, which are based on human tradition and the spiritual forces of the world rather than on Christ,” because Almighty God said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways” (Colossians 2:8, Isaiah 55:8).
3. Listen for His voice
“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear this command behind you: ‘This is the way. Walk in it,’” “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Isaiah 30:21, Romans 8:14).