Investors Plagued by “Continuous Partial Attention”

I never miss a monthly issue of the Mutual Fund Observer, one of the most comprehensive, well put-together looks at the money management game you’ll find anywhere. As such, I was thrilled to see my new book Clash of the Financial Pundits mentioned by the eminent Professor David Snowball. He cite’s Tadas Viskanta’s take on the subject as well, read that here

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You wouldn’t imagine that those of us who try to communicate for a vocation might argue that you need to read (watch and listen) less, rather than more but that is the position that several of us tend toward.

Tadas Viskanta , proprietor of the very fine Abnormal Returns blog, calls for “a news diet” in his book, Abnormal Returns: Winning Strategies from the Frontlines of the Investment Blogosphere (2012).  He argues:

A media diet, as practiced by Nassim Taleb, is a conscious effort to decrease the amount of media we consume. Most of what we consume is “empty calories.” Most of it has little information value and can only serve to crowd out other more interesting and informative sources.

That’s all consistent with Barry Ritzholz’s argument that the stuff which makes great and tingly headlines – Black Swans, imminent crashes, zombie apocalypses – aren’t what hurts the average investor most. We’re hurt most, he says during a presentation at the FPA NorCal Conference in 2014, by the slow drip, drip, drip of mistakes: high expenses, impulsive trading and performance chasing. None of which is really news.

Josh Brown, who writes under the moniker The Reformed Broker at a blog of the same name, disagrees.  One chapter of this new book The Clash of the Financial Pundits (2014)is entitled “The Myth of the Media Diet.”  Brown argues that we have no more ability to consistently abstain from news than we have to consistently abstain from sugary treats.  In his mind, the effort of suppressing the urge in the first place just leads to cheating and then a return, unreformed, to our original destructive habits: “A true media diet virtually assures an overreaction to market volatility and expert prognostication once the dieter returns to the flashing lights and headlines.”  He argues that we need to better understand the financial media in order to keep intelligently informed, rather than entirely pickled in the daily brew.

And Snowball’s take on it all?

I actually teach about this stuff for a living, from News Literacy to Communication and Emerging Technologies. My best reading of the research supports the notion that we’ve become victims of continuous partial attention. There are so many ways of reaching us and we’re so often judged by the speed of our response (my students tell me that five minutes is the longest you can wait before responding to text without giving offense), that we’re continually dividing our attention between the task at hand and a steady stream of incoming chatter. (15% of us have interrupted sex to take a cellphone call while a third text while driving.) It’s pervasive enough that there are now reports in the medical literature of sleep-texting; that is, hearing an incoming text while asleep, rousing just enough to respond and then returning to sleep without later knowing that any of this had happened. We are, in short, training ourselves to be distracted, unsure and unfocused.

Fortunately, we can also retrain ourselves for become more focused. Focus requires discipline; not “browsing” or “link-hopping,” but regular, structured attention. In general, I pay no attention to “the news” except during two narrow windows each day (roughly, the morning when I have coffee and read two newspapers and during evening commutes). During those windows, I listen to NPR News which – so far as I can determine – has the most consistently thoughtful, in-depth journalism around.

But beyond that, I do try to practice paying intense and undivided attention to the stuff that’s actually important: I neither take and make calls during my son’s ballgames, I have no browser open when my students come for advice, and I seek no distraction greater than jazz when I’m reading a book.

It’s not smug self-indulgence, dear friends. It’s survival. I really want to embrace my life, not wander distractedly through it. For investors, that means making fewer, more thoughtful decisions and learning to trust that you’ve gotten it right rather than second-guessing yourself throughout the day and night.

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