Improving your retention of current events

By Toa Lohe (@Toamatapu) | 4 min read

In his book, Heuer writes about the work of intelligence analysts and the challenges they face when analyzing and writing about information they receive. His book is highly relevant to today since readers and journalists are able to have almost the same amount of access to information like intelligence analysts. Heuer’s advice to readers will help them understand how to read and think about the news they are reading. 

Purchase a copy here.

Accept the Complexity of Our World

Heuer states people need to accept that the “mind cannot cope directly with the complexity of the world.” And that we too readily “overestimate the extent to which [our government can] successfully influence the behavior of others.” We can’t base our opinions on the few facts delivered by the media since “people tend to employ simple rules of thumb that reduce the burden of processing” complex news stories. We have to be wary of oversimplification since we will fall into the trap of a “best guess strategy” with two different scenarios: “If [readers] reject the evidence, they tend to reject it fully, so it plays no further role in their mental calculations. If they accept the evidence, they tend to accept it wholly, ignoring the probabilistic nature of the accuracy or reliability judgment.” Readers can never derive a strong enough opinion from the news available since the information that is reported can be false. “There are many reasons why information often is less than perfectly accurate: misunderstanding,  misperception, or having only part of the story; bias on the part of the ultimate  source;  distortion  in  the  reporting chain…or misunderstanding and misperception by the [journalist].” Since every journalist and reader has their own limits on understanding a complex subject they can have “great difficulty processing it” and depend on what they “think they know.”

Understand the Power of Perception

“We tend to perceive what we expect to perceive.” Now that doesn’t mean to throw up our hands despair, give up and carry on with our lives. Perception isn’t a passive process, it’s an active one, that “constructs rather than  records ‘reality.'” We are active participants and “it is very difficult, at best, to be self-conscious about the workings of one’s own mind.” But there are benefits to being self-conscious because your perception constructs a reality that contains understanding and awareness. This understanding and awareness will feed into your voting decision which may or may not negatively affect your life. You do not have forfeit your reality to an individual writing an article or on a news channel. When we watch or read the news, we are participating in the construction of an entire reality which may not even exist. This false reality can be informed by the most trustworthy news sources.

Why does this problem occur? It’s natural. “Once [readers] start thinking along certain channels, they tend to continue thinking the same way…[their thinking] seems like the obvious and natural way to go.” These mental pathways are what discourage us from reading news that may not be agreeable with our opinions. “Events consistent with these expectations are perceived and processed easily, while events that contradict prevailing expectations tend to be ignored or distorted in perception.” Even if you try to assert your objectivity when watching the news that doesn’t fix the problem either since “trying  to  be  objective  does  not  ensure accurate perception.” We may want to believe that videos and photographs are sufficient references to use when understanding the world’s complexities but “sensory perception” isn’t sufficient. We have to test our own opinions and conclusions. Our minds will look for strong patterns, but we have to consider that certain events are the product of randomness. Accept your own biases, challenge what you read and weight the validity of the different sources. This will require a certain amount of effort, but will be rewarding since you will produce your opinion to discuss with others and not be subscribed to what others tell you.

You Are Inclined to Not Challenge the News

Since the mainstream media is recognized as a leader in branding what is truth and what isn’t for a much of our lives we are more inclined to defend brands and journalists, even when we know they have been compromised or are under the control of one individual. This results from our own desire to have some sense of order in this complicated world which is actually very random; “people seek and often believe they find causes for what are actually random phenomena.” We can overestimate “the extent to which other countries are pursuing coherent, rational, goal-maximizing policies, because this makes for more coherent, logical, rational explanations.” That is why people are susceptible to believing many events are linked to “coordinated actions, plans and conspiracies.” And we have to be aware any “sensible” explanations since they can be servicing our own government’s public image and be the “product of shifting or inconsistent values, bureaucratic bargaining, or sheer confusion and blunder” within a president’s administration. Heuer exemplifies people’s desire for explanation with a historical example: “During World War II, Londoners advanced a variety of causal explanations for the pattern of German bombing. Such explanations frequently guided their decisions about where to live and when to take refuge in air raid shelters. Postwar examination, however, determined that the clustering of bomb hits was close to a random distribution.”

Understand The Limits of Your Memory

Understanding the capacity of our memories enables us to be cautious when receiving new information about the world. How we learn about something and then store it in our memory is incredibly important to how we form an opinion and make voting decisions. “Imagine memory as a massive, multidimensional spider web…One thought leads to another…[in a] labyrinthine path.” There is an inherent beauty to this vast web, but it presents a dilemma. “Once  people  have  started  thinking  about  a  problem one way, the same mental circuits or pathways get activated and strengthened each time they think about it. This facilitates the retrieval of information. These same pathways, however, also become the mental ruts that make it difficult to reorganize the information mentally so as to see it from a different  perspective.” We may believe that we can access every news story in the world, understand it in oversimplified terms and remember all the facts. But that isn’t possible. It takes careful and persistent work to understand the events, issues and stories we decide to investigate. And that’s a good thing. The world’s complex, be excited about that plain fact.


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