People Chase News Like Dogs Chase Chipmunks

Picture this: you walk into a room and see someone you somewhat recognize. You have one of two reactions in your head: “Oh look who it is!” or “oh no, not them…”

The process behind that simple reaction has some serious implications for all of us, and even our dogs too (to the other pets who may feel left out– I see you, but today is the dogs’ turn).

When I walked my dog out of the house today, we both paused as something bolted from under my car to a gap under the corner of our garage. Both of us saw it. Both of our brains completed the same initial assessment.

Fast motion – any threat?

What happened next included my dog charging in to investigate the tiny space the chipmunk escaped into, and me yelling at him to just leave it alone and relax.

Working backwards, it’s important realize that our ability to remember whether we like someone or something actual travels through our brains far faster than our ability to remember any fact about them. My dog had to try to catch that critter, BUT only after he assessed what it actually was. No further assessment from him was needed.

For my advanced monkey-brain though, this quick automatic process is just a first step in a much more complicated chain of potential events. It may have stopped at my plea to relax for this circumstance, but what are the odds this process gets extrapolated out further for another? It turns out they are pretty high, and my brain doesn’t have different systems for chipmunks versus other stuff.

A little later I received a push-notification from a news app on my phone. The same process got triggered.

Fast motion – any threat?

Here’s where the problems start. From an evolutionary perspective, this “quickly assess for danger then respond” process served early humans very well on the Serengeti. Certainly we are the great-great-grandchildren of those that were spooked by a snake in the grass that turned out to be a stick, and not those that weren’t spooked by what they thought was a stick and turned out to be a snake.

As soon as we turn to abstractions though – like “news,” things get murky. What happens when the threat is existential and not just a critter?

What does it mean or matter what the President tweeted? What does it mean or matter that GE got dropped from the Dow? These are existential abstractions, not straightforward chipmunks. My dog doesn’t care about these things, but in a way I (sort of) have to.

Dr. Raife Giovinazzo (check out his CV – he studied under both Kahneman and Thaler) told Barry Ritholtz that previously mentioned tidbit about how our ability to remember whether we like someone operates far faster than our ability to remember any fact about them, and it got me to thinking.

Consider that whatever push notification you look at next on your phone will be received using the same mental system. You will have a good or bad automatic response to that piece of information, not at all unlike when you walk into a room and see a familiar face and recall if you like them or not.

The news is not a chipmunk, but we all still will check for a threat, recall a responsive feeling, take an action, and then assemble a narrative. “Oh, that’s Tom, he’s a good guy, we were at the retreat together.” “Oh no, that’s Steve, he’s the one who took all the credit for the project.” “Oh, that tweet makes sense, we really do need to improve that policy.” “Oh no, what did he say now, we’re all gonna die…”

It helps to remember part of your brain is no different from the dog chasing the chipmunk. It helps to yell at that part of your brain to relax and leave it alone (sometimes). Far more is happening far faster than any of us have control of.

Before you go down the path of considering some abstraction, make sure you’ve packed up your tools and that you’re ready to tackle the challenge. Don’t just be impulsive. Leave that to the dogs.

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