How to Balance Your Media Diet

We Hunger for Ideas

Adefining aspect of humanity is that we are driven, fed and led by ideas as well as food.

In fact, ideas might be even more powerful drivers than food since we are willing to forgo food just because of entirely abstract ideas we hold.

“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
― Yuval Noah HarariSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Our hunger predates our current condition. Media flipped from being scarce to abundant in the blink of evolutionary eye so we are prone to gorging ourselves [we will look at this in more detail in Part Three].

When we have control over what we consume, we tend to feel happier. We are strongly biased towards feeling in control, and when we feel like we don’t have any control, we tend to get depressed.

Our difficulty in controlling ourselves in the face of abundance [we tend to eat more when there is more food on our plate, more food visible and more variety of foods on offer which is why buffets are the devil] neatly intersects with the business model of the attention economy, which means media needs to ever increase the amount to time you spend consuming it.

This is achieved by feeding us whatever will keep us engaged or enraged, arousal being the key to capturing attention.

What you think is a function of the ideas you consume. At Genius Steals we have built our creative consultancy on this insight: nothing can come from nothing, originality is a myth, one cannot invent without inventory.

That means we largely believe in Locke’s tabula rasa — that the mind is a blank slate, empty of content, filled with experiences and perceptions, shaped by and into ideas.

The better, more diverse the inputs, the better the ideas because ideas are new combinations and the more diverse the inputs that are held together by the combination, the more interesting the idea is. This is the hybrid vigor of creativity.

The media we eat for 12 hours on average a day constitute the bulk of the ideas we consume. What’s the right balance for a healthy mind?

“There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds — our lives — are largely shaped by how we use them.” — Sam Harris

What kind of person do you want to become?

From the Top: The Pyramid Explained and Evidenced

RED: INFO-TOXIC-ATION | Media that brokers in falsehoods.

Media that makes you believe things that aren’t true [i.e. not fiction] will put inaccurate ideas into your head, which is inherently bad, because it will distort your understanding of the world.

It is a truth that should be self evident — it is actively harmful, for you and society, when media [that is nominally not fiction] you trust publishes falsehoods for ideological or commercial reasons.

Propaganda is bad for you since by definition it makes youthink incorrectly about the world, regardless of political orientation, and has been shown to polarize discourse and radicalize readers.

The extreme packaging around news designed to hack attention creates an unending sense of urgency, which has been linked to various anxieties and other more dramatic issues.

ORANGE: CONSUMPTION | Media that is passively grazed, such as through an algorithmic or broadcast stream.

Heavy use of social media has been correlated with lots of unhappiness, in various forms, especially mobile usage.

The algorithms themselves currently favor falsehood over truth and make it hard to distinguish between the two, by design, which is another problem consuming the prepared stream, pulling it into the red zone.

Further, any algorithmic editorial function can be manipulated by hackers and social engineers of all sorts, from search engine optimization through to the foreign troll farms.

recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that, for many Americans, “news consumption has a downside”:

“More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds — which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.”

Despite it making us feel worse, we seem to be hard wired to seek out new news, and the current environment exacerbates our existing tendencies.

So if the evidence suggests the news can stress people out, why do they keep going back for more? For one thing, it’s entertaining, Davey says.

The human brain is also wired to pay attention to information that scares or unsettles us — a concept known as “negativity bias“.

“In a state of nature, our survival depends on finding rewards and avoiding harm, but avoiding harm takes priority.

Due to confirmation and negativity bias and a host of other manipulated heuristics, such as our need to belong to a tribe, we tend to be drawn to these preceding types of content.

As far as researchers can tell, all men consume pornography, for an average of 40 minutes a week, and various studies suggest that considered consumption has some beneficial effects.

“A 2008 Danish study found that moderate porn watching gave viewers some benefits. Both men and women who did so said they had more satisfying sex lives and healthier attitudes towards sex and the opposite gender.”

Studies are inconclusive however, and much polarized by politics. Excessive consumption is correlated with various social maladies, and while addiction is not technically recognized, as per all media, if it’s impacting your work or relationships negatively, that’s too much. 1

YELLOW: INTERACTION | Media that allows for or requires interpersonal communications.

We all need to communicate and private interpersonal communication has been shown to make us feel better, regardless of platform.

While emails are useful and necessary they are also a significant source of anxiety and something that needs to be managed.

Grazing broadcast television brings the world to us but it is different to watching something by choice. When we have more channels we tend to change them more and report being less satisfied after hours of flicking through channels and less satisfied with individual shows. The Tinder effect, one might say.

So broadcast grazing of different types appear in different levels, because consuming a varied stream is better than eating news all day and provides you with some interaction with the world.

BLUE: PARTICIPATION | Media in which one chooses specific content to consume or is otherwise actively engaged in the content.

Choosing content is more satisfying than being fed it, but we are predisposed to binge, especially when life seems stressful. [We will look at this more in part three as well.]

Journalism that doesn’t take advertising and thus isn’t susceptible to Chomsky’s first media filter [ownership] makes it less biased towards commercial interests overall and tends to have a beneficent mandate driving editorial decisions.

Playing games is good for your brain and playing board games makes you smarter and better at being social, which has its own benefits [see GREEN].

Watching movies, even sad ones, can make you happier and fiction increases your empathy.

Beyond engagement, there is also of course active media production, which is part of normal everyday media consumption now. Selfies and selfie culture can negatively impact self image and mental health.

However, active creation and active interpersonal communication, on social platforms or elsewhere, correlates to better mood and reported satisfaction.

“Scientific evidence also suggests that creating art may elevate your mood, clarify your ability to problem solve, and increase open-mindedness.”

BROWN: EDIFICATION | Media which increases our moral and intellectual capabilities

Content where we learn something substantive, from science through hobbies to well researched peer reviewed journalism, tend to make us feel happier, if we think we learned something useful.

“It’s actually a core need for psychological wellbeing. Learning can help us build confidence and a sense of self-efficacy. It can also be a way of connecting with others too.”

Podcasts are often elucidating, and audio makes us happier than tv.

GREEN: ACTUALIZATION | Media in which we seek our best selves.

We place this below edification and educational media because it operates more broadly, and we have begun to shift attention to direct improvement, which is more limiting.

Self help books are the fastest growing segment of books, for example, as we all try to make ourselves better employees and succesful capitalists, but to the detriment of wider media consumption, especially the arts, which help build the non-obvious connections needed to create ideas and enhances overall intelligence and empathy.

There are obviously cultural values encoded in both this idea that art improves us, the idea of high and low culture, and challenges of access to the arts and so on. [Time, costs and proximity are all barriers to attending cultural activities.]

As we have seen, there is an inverse correlation, across all the research, between passivity and reported wellbeing.

Active media choices leave you feeling better, which means this pyramid ends up being an inversion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, in part, because actualization requires participation and work.

So, in some ways, the very difficulty of finding and decoding art and other people’s conversations, is what makes them more valuable, in terms of reported wellbeing and other desirable faculties.

Reading books can make you happier and reading is for awesome people. Visiting art galleries and museums can make you smarter and trips to see live theatre “enhance tolerance, and empathy”.

Listening to music has a “very positive effect on wellbeing” and can even reduce back pain and help you sleep better. Going to concerts “directly links high levels of well-being with a lifespan increase of nine years.

“Our research showcases the profound impact gigs have on feelings of health, happiness and well-being.”

Deep conversations make you happier — and having friends correlates to a longer life and research shows “Unhappy people watch TV, happy people read/socialize”Playing board games makes you smarter and is inherently social.

There are no known negative side effects to any of these GREEN activities, so binge away — no need for a cheat day [although Sundays are a great day to read, visit friends or got to a museum!]

Truth, Lies & Politics [A Post Script on Bias]

In order to reduce any political slant the segmentation criteria are not political and bipartisan examples have been used where possible.

For example, we are using Goop as the left leaning analogue for Infowars — they are both well known with large audiences and both distribute alarmingfalsehoods and sell snake oil.

The Daily Mail is considered “highly unreliable” but the separate Mail Online routinely publishes outright falsehoods and attacked those trying to fact check it, so it’s a better exemplar.

Now, let’s be clear: just because a media site is biased does not mean it’s disreputable! For example, The Wall Street Journal may skew right while The Atlantic may skew left, but both sites do their due diligence and produce high-quality articles that are worth reading. Having a slight political bias is perfectly normal.

The problem arises when a site is so driven by its bias that it begins to misrepresent reality, such as by distorting the opposition’s viewpoint or producing fake news and conspiracy theories.

This is what you want to avoid.”

Political bias is important to be aware of but not one of criteria for the pyramid.


Not all books [or games or shows] are created equal, but we can in general say that reading books has different reported effects that playing games or watching shows.

The pyramid is designed to help us be mindful of the media we consume not to be absolutely accurate — it will keep evolving over time. [We have updated it responding to feedback since part one.]

Mind you, the original pyramid wasn’t accurate at all, reflecting the needs of the food lobby at the time [because “policy is PR”] and nutritional science remains hotly debated.

Regardless, it feels like a useful exercise to provide some nuance to the polarized and naive binary that typifies the current discourse, that social media is “bad” or that “television makes you stupid”.

We tend to significantly underestimate consumption of mobile and let our attention be allocated for us in a variety of ways.

« We must be mindful about always consuming media with intent — it’s the best way not to be consumed by media. » — Olivier Rondet, CSO Oxygen PR, Paris

If you don’t consciously choose how to allocate your attention, it will be allocated for you, by entities whose objectives are not your own.

With such principles and provisos established, we’ll continue to evolve the pyramid and map out some of the drivers and consequences and in part three, as we continue to consider what a balanced media diet is, and why.

What would you change? Comments welcome.

Thanks to everyone who gave feedback on Part One over Twitter and email.

No really, comments welcome. This is an essay — an attempt. It needs to get better, to have its bias subjected to interrogation, its flaws exposed and managed.

Just as the Food Pyramid was flawed, just as nutritional science is still much debated, this isn’t a final word but an opening salvo, a guide to claiming back our attention, or at least choosing to choose how we spend it.

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