Information overload
Information overload
Image: 123RF / Marek Uliasz

Erik Hagerman is my new hero. Sadly, reports of my admiration will never reach him. Hagerman — subject of a recent New York Times profile — decided to block out all news after the election of Donald Trump. Living in rural Ohio, the former corporate executive reads no newspapers and watches only basketball on TV. He takes in the games without sound, for fear of passing political references. When he goes to parties, other guests are forewarned.

I do not know if Hagerman is a happier man than he would be if he had the usual grim fixation on the latest out of Washington. I suspect that he is, though, and I admire the cussed stubbornness of his project, which he calls “the blockade”. What strikes me most, though, is the possibility that the blockade has made Hagerman smarter — indeed, smarter about the very topic he has blockaded.

Suppose that on the morning of November 5 — the day before the midterm elections — the blockade ends, leaving him a day to catch up before voting. Given his response to Trump’s election, the party he will vote for is in little doubt. But who, by November 6, will have a less muddled, more actionable view of the current state of American politics? Hagerman, who will have no choice but to focus on the most important factors, sorting wheat from chaff? Or myself, who has spent Hagerman’s months of radio silence consuming fact and opinions from the social-media fire hose and from four newspapers — and churning out political editorials for one of them?

Partisanship is so powerful that it makes people change deeply held principles

I’m afraid it would be Hagerman. This is an odd view coming from a man whose pay cheques are signed by a news organisation. And it might sound like another condemnation of experts. It is not. Some people — activists, political professionals, business leaders — need to keep one eye always on the news. The point is that for me, and perhaps most people, the main barrier to being smart is not what we do not know. It is the masses of things we know and mistakenly believe to be relevant.

My wife and I have been thinking about the next stage of our kids’ education. Being central-casting middle-class professional types, we hired an educational consultant to talk us through a range of state schools. She provided briefings about each school, crammed with facts about test scores, teacher turnover, class sizes, and so on.

Feeling slightly dizzy, I asked which bits I should pay attention to. She responded — with glorious honesty for someone being paid by the hour — that there was only one piece of information that really mattered: how many students are late or absent on a regular basis. If a school is the kind of place where almost everybody shows up and shows up on time, then it is the kind of place where kids and teachers can achieve a lot together. The rest is noise.

That comment made me smarter, not because it was a surprising revelation but because it allowed me to clear a lot of junk out of my head — and avoid putting a lot more junk into it. What we all need is the cognitive equivalent of decluttering guru Marie Kondo, who can help us to go into our own heads and throw out all the beliefs that have outlived their usefulness.

Consider Trump’s announcement that he plans to have a nuclear summit with North Korean president Kim Jong Un. Lots of people offer views on whether starting the negotiation process with a presidential meeting, rather than holding out such a meeting as a reward for progress, is a good idea.

Whoever is right, it is amusing to think what would have happened if Barack Obama had made a similar trip. Many critics of Trump’s recklessness would have seen the Obama trip as a masterstroke of statesmanship; many fans of Trump’s boldness would have been braying “traitor” at Obama.

The standard interpretation of cases like this is to say: partisanship is so powerful that it makes people change deeply held principles. But this is wrong. The beliefs that change so quickly are junk beliefs. We hold on to them only because they make us feel good about ourselves, or help us conform. Whether they are true or false is beside the point. They get us into dumb arguments, end conversations, and prevent us from focusing on what matters.

“I have yet to see a house that lacked sufficient storage. The real problem is that we have far more than we need or want”: so says Marie Kondo about the places we live, and it sounds trite. Applied to our brains, it rings true.

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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