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How the media is manipulating your mind

By Sam Instone - February 23, 2023

I recently finished ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’, by Ryan Holiday.  

In a world hugely affected by news, this self-declared manipulator gives a behind-the-scenes look at how the media really works.  

And how he uses the ‘dark arts’ of this industry to make a living. 

In his own words, 

Why am I giving away these secrets? Because I'm tired of a world where blogs take indirect bribes, marketers help write the news, reckless journalists spread lies, and no one is accountable for any of it. I'm pulling back the curtain because I don't want anyone else to get blindsided.

Think about how you consume media.

You don’t read just one thing.

You probably read a variety in various formats.

It’s unlikely you pay for any of it.  

All the publishers want is views.  

So, journalism becomes about what spreads – not what’s good.

This sparked me thinking about all the mental models I’ve been sharing this year.  

And how the human mind works.  

Take the financial press.

People become hyper about the markets when they listen to hyperbolic headlines.  

To get viewers’ attention, media outlets exaggerate events and excite the emotions of investors who are swayed by fear or greed.

The result is always an emotional game of ping-pong, leading to illogical investment behaviour (such as buying at market highs and selling at market lows).

This happens because, once you’ve formed a belief, adding exceptions and justifications becomes easier than changing or updating it.

Our minds, in a way, have a shut-down mode.

So you can plan effectively.

Once the mind has accepted a plausible explanation for something, it becomes a framework for all the information that is perceived after it. We’re drawn, subconsciously, to fit and contort all the subsequent knowledge we receive into our framework, whether it fits or not. Psychologists call this “cognitive rigidity”. The facts that built an original premise are gone, but the conclusion remains - the general feeling of our opinion floats over the collapsed foundation that established it. 

Information overload, “busyness,” speed, bias, and emotion all exacerbate this phenomenon. They make it even harder to update our beliefs or remain open-minded. 

Charlie Munger said something similar: 

What I’m saying here is that the human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in. The human mind has a big tendency of the same sort. And here again, it doesn’t just catch ordinary mortals; it catches the deans of physics. According to Max Planck, the really innovative, important new physics was never really accepted by the old guard. Instead, a new guard came along that was less brain-blocked by its previous conclusions. And if Max Planck’s crowd had this consistency and commitment tendency that kept their old inclusions intact in spite of disconfirming evidence, you can imagine what the crowd that you and I are part of behaves like.

So, once a belief is formed, the mind tends to stick to it.

Accepting new ideas becomes difficult.

Consider the following statements:

The best way to make money is to speculate on the next hot sector.

I can save money by choosing my own investments.

Now isn’t the best time to invest in the markets.

These are heavily influenced by pre-existing beliefs.

Even the most intelligent people can be trapped (often I hear these from highly successful professionals and families).

The mind shuts down and doesn’t let new information in.

The trick, if there is one, is to form working beliefs, not permanent beliefs.

Stay open-minded and avoid being influenced solely by popular opinion.

The wise investor has learned to look past the colourful adjectives that describe daily market fluctuations and to keep their eyes fixed on long-term trends.  

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