Rising above the noise to find the truth (and a little bit of sanity)
– George Orwell, 1984
I read a fascinating article in New York magazine about what happens when a lie hits your brain. It wasn’t new information—Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert presented his findings more than 20 years ago—but it was new to me. And it just may be more important now than ever.
What Gilbert proposed was that our brains are forced to do some stunning acrobatics whenever we hear a lie. First, the lie is told. And when that happens, our brains have to accept that information as true to understand and make sense of it. That means that even if we know something is a lie, in that first critical moment, our brains tells us the information is true. Thankfully, we’re usually able to take the next step, which is to certify mentally whether the information is true—or not. According to Gilbert, the challenge is that the first step of mental processing is easy and effortless. The second? Not so much. It takes time and energy. Which means if we become distracted or overloaded, it’s all too easy for us to never take that second step. Suddenly, something we knew to be a lie begins to sound more and more reasonable. In fact, in a more recent study, researchers tested this hypothesis, asking people to repeat the phrase “The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth.” After repeating it enough times, the participants started to believe the statement to be true. Why? Their brains just took the easier route to closing the loop on processing new information. Scary, but true.
I’m embarrassed to say that I can think of too many examples in my own life when I’ve done the same thing. You probably can too. Every one of us is guilty. But in our defense, it’s not our fault. As humans, we all have a limit to our “cognitive load”—or how much our brains can process at one time. When we’re hit with a constant stream of information, our brains reach that limit, and we’re no longer able to take that important second step of mental certification. And, boy, is that cognitive load being challenged lately! Every day we’re inundated with noise on every topic. Television. Radio. Newspapers. Magazines. Facebook. Twitter. Every outlet is screaming for us to pay attention, and whether it’s the media or our friends flooding our brains with information, we’re spending an incredible amount of time trying to discern facts from “alternative truths.” The result: our brains are overloaded… and downright exhausted.
As an advisor, my mission is to help my clients rise above the noise to make careful, thoughtful financial decisions. In this environment, it isn’t easy! The media and everyone’s well-meaning friends are overflowing with information. Unfortunately, some of that information can be misleading. For example, the media has focused on the market indices for years. As a result, so do investors—even if they know that the fact that the Dow hit 20,000 yesterday has nothing to do with their long-term financial outlook. But for the media, this magic number is an easy target. They can report on it. They can speculate on it. They can create headline-grabbing sound bites about it. The result: a whole lot of noise that carries about as much importance as reporting on the path of a rollercoaster when all that matters (really!) is where the ride ends.
What’s the solution? We need to lessen our cognitive load. We need to slow down the noise, slow down our brains, and regain our mental strength. For me, that means turning off the television and the radio. I’m able to slow down and think more clearly when I read written information rather than listening to “talking heads.” This is true in finance and every aspect of my life. And when that doesn’t work? I meditate. (For more on how our brains can inhibit or ensure our own happiness, check out Daniel Gilbert’s bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness.)
Whenever I feel challenged by the noisy world around me, I remember Viktor Frankl’s famous quote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Perhaps by taking the time to slow down and rise above the noise, we can each make that choice and, indeed, choose our own way.