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Financial Independence 101,  Random Thoughts

Does A Low-Information Diet Confirm Your Biases?

It started off with a tweet…like the worst of stories do. Mr. Money Mustache, bastion of the Financial Independence crowd and an early stalwart of what I like to call the “white angsty libertarian Colorado groupies” (and I enjoy this group most of the time), shared his thoughts on how he thought Bikes, Barbells, and Salads were way more important than wearing masks.

After that bombshell, a thread was started by Tanja Hester of Our Next Life (definitely check out if you haven’t!) about the topic (and she has a wonderful post here going over the low-information diet.

The thesis of Mr. Money Mustache’s argument on a low-information diet in his 2013 blog post is:

  • “‘It is all Bullshit’, is what Mr. Money Mustache says, ‘You need to get the News out of your life, right away, and for life.‘”
  • News programs are run as commercial enterprises dependent on advertising revenue that is geared towards churning out sensationalism.
  • It fucks up your perception of risk.
  • “I often tell people that the biggest benefit to early retirement has been ‘getting my own mind back’. Without the demands of 8 hours of software design every day, I’ve been amazed at the fun things I have had the energy to learn in these past 8 years. But a job really only takes about 50% of your mind. The other half is generally burned by email, television, Facebook, Reddit, video games, researching potential products and other unnecessary things. If you can eliminate these, you’re halfway to retirement already.”
  • He follows in an addendum: “Wow, this post is much more controversial than I expected and I’m taking some heat in the comments. I think most of the complaints come from the mistaken impression that I am promoting ignorance rather than efficiency. Following the daily news with the death tolls and pointless squabbles is very different from seeking to understand human society and world politics in general. And when you skip the sugar and carbs of the daily stuff, you free your mind up to accomplish much more than you otherwise would.”

Low-Information Diet

The Low-Information diet is credited with gurus likes Tim Ferriss and you’ll get a million crappy listicle articles on the topic if you do a simple Google search that breathlessly repeat the pseudo-science around the topic of limiting information in your day-to-day routine. There’s a kernel of wisdom in the approach, but it needs to be thoughtfully approached.

I take issue with an argument that you should be tuning out a large portion of the world. Moderation is key if you’re the type who gets up and reaches for your phone right away to check the New York Times or Fox News or whatever is your source of news. I personally think supporting journalism and institutions who are able to bring truth to power is a fundamental aspect of democracy and that I have a duty to support. Mostly, this is because I have a background in working for news organizations so I have to acknowledge my biases. With that comes models based on advertising or subscriptions. You’ll notice that Mr. Money Mustache has a wide range of ads on his site like the below that he uses to churn his brand of FIRE into a commercial endeavor (and more power to him. Banana Fire Guy will very likely never have the traction that he does so I can afford being sanctimonious):

Screenshot from Mr. Money Mustache site.

Counterargument: You should wear masks

I think there’s a tendency in the personal finance community to seek all-or-nothing thinking. It’s either this or that. It can take several pernicious forms:

  • You either retire at age 40 or else you’ve failed.
  • You should have $X amount saved up by the time you’re at your age.
  • If you’re not a software engineering making 6-figures in the Bay Area, then you’re not worthy of the movement
  • You’re “too old” to start planning for retirement
  • I’ve retired early so I’m an expert on retiring and a crooning group of fans think I can do no wrong (this might apply to someone mentioned in the article)

You see this type of thinking around the community and in the financial media. Embracing gradient thinking is something that I’ve explored with my therapist on embracing the shades of grey when approaching obstacles, problems, and all-or-nothing thinking.

With all-or-nothing thinking there comes a level of confirmation bias which can be fueled by loneliness. If you aren’t able to have a community or seeking out new sources of information or people to challenge your ideas, you begin a level of cognitive decline.

Isolation is one of the biggest issues I have with a low-information diet. Obviously it doesn’t pertain to everyone and you can embrace a minimalist approach and still leave a happy, fulfilling life. But, I think the low-information diet can lead you down a further path of isolation and errors in thinking, even if it’s couched in convenient thinking and seems right.

Let’s dive into some research on loneliness

In the 2009 Trends in Cognitive Sciences article “Perceived Social Isolation and Cognition” (helpfully shared by Tanja Hester) it dives into a range of issues with loneliness, but I think a cogent point is that humans do not fare well when they live isolated lives or even when they perceive they are living isolated lives.

Some notable quotes from the research:

  • “Research indicates that perceived social isolation (i.e., loneliness) is a risk factor for, and may contribute to, poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, poorer executive functioning, more negativity and depressive cognition, heightened sensitivity to social threats, a confirmatory bias in social cognition that is self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating, heightened anthropomorphism, and contagion that threatens social cohesion.”
  • Loneliness can predict health outcomes like high blood pressure, physical activity, and is linked to cognitive decline or the risk of for Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • “A possible casualty of loneliness and the priming of social threats is that lonely individuals may be more likely to focus on themselves, their needs, and their preservation in negative circumstances.” 
  • “The brains of lonely, in contrast to nonlonely, individuals are on high alert for social threats, so lonely individuals tend to view their social world as threatening and punitive…”
  • “Specifically, feeling socially isolated can trigger implicit hypervigilance for social threats, which in turn produces attentional, confirmatory, and memorial biases. Accordingly, lonely individuals are more likely to attend to and construe their social world as threatening, hold more negative social expectations, and remember more negative social events than are nonlonely individuals. These cognitions increase the likelihood that individuals engage in behavioral confirmation processes, [Emphasis mine] through which they produce more negative social interactions and elicit evidence confirming that they have little personal control or social value. These dispositions, in turn, alter the nature and likelihood of social engagement and activate neurobiological mechanisms that increase activation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and diminish sleep quality. Repeated or chronic activation of threat surveillance in a social context, coupled with diminished anabolic processes, may contribute to heightened cognitive load, diminished executive functioning, dysregulated brain and physiological systems, and broad based morbidity and mortality.
Figure 3: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2752489/
  • “Together, this work suggests that when people feel socially isolated, they become more likely to use their cognitive capacities to try to fill the social void.”
  • Of note on the limitations of this research: “Although this theoretical model is consistent with the evidence reviewed here, many details remain to be tested and refined.”

Conclusion, Part I

So can you be lonely and consume a lot of news? For sure. Can you be un-lonely (that’s a word right? No it’s not. – The Editors) and do a low-information diet? Yes, of course.

The thrust of the argument though becomes that when you commit to a low-information diet, you also have to be cognizant of your own confirmation and memory biases which will lead you astray. Ask yourself a few key question from this article “Outsmart Your Own Biases” in HBR that highlights some of the work on bias including the esteemed behavioral Economist Daniel Kahneman:

  • Are you engaging in System 1 thinking where “automatic judgments that stem from associations stored in memory” are the primary source of your assertion?
  • Are you adhering to System 2 thinking “the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates” that requires some kind of mental exertion?
  • How can I broaden my perspective on the issue? What are the risks of this thinking and what are my levels of uncertainty?
  • One recommendation is to use three estimates (low, medium, and high) for how you think about it. Does that help you frame it a little better?
  • Conduct a postmortem! In the world of project management (which I’m very passionate about), you need to be thinking about constant improvement. If I’m wrong about something, why was I wrong and what can I do to improve my level of thinking in the future?
  • Think outside the Box: Seek advice from others that challenges your thinking. This could include friends, news sources, experts, etc.
  • The article summarizes: “As a rule of thumb, it’s good to anticipate three possible futures, establish three key objectives, and generate three viable options for each decision scenario. We can always do more, of course, but this general approach will keep us from feeling overwhelmed by endless possibilities—which can be every bit as debilitating as seeing too few.”

Conclusion part II

Oh, and by the way, wear a fucking mask when you’re near people. Social distancing AND wearing a mask helps prevent infection spread. Not fucking salads.

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