Stop telling me what’s important

I can’t write on directly onto the page!

Reading online is not the same!

I like physical, made-of-solid-matter books.

I thought my Dad was the same. Until he got a Kindle. He’s been walking the divide between physical and digital ever since. Traitor.

One feature that I particularly detest on the Kindle? The ability to see what other people have highlighted.

Why do I care?

Two words: Framing and salience.

A framing effect is a cognitive bias. It means that the way a choice is presented influences how you respond. It’s a tool put to effective use in the hands of advertisers, marketers, businessmen, designers, politicians, even writers.

Look at some of the answers to the question, “What are the key traits of mentally strong people?”

If you only had five minutes to get as much from knowledge from that question as you can, a good strategy would be to only read the sentences in bold. The bold type is saying, “Read me! I’m important!”

The bold type is the star. The rest is the supporting cast.

The bold indicates salience. When something is deemed salient, it means it matters.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Silver Blaze, the fact that the dog didn’t bark was salient.

How does this relate to the Kindle feature of “popular highlights?”

Imagine starting a book. As I read, I can see which passages other people have highlighted. My attention is drawn to them. For others to highlight it, it must be of value.

As I continue on, I am continually impacted by the presence of other people’s highlights. Rather than reading and deciding for myself what passages matter to me, I take other people’s word for it. My own objectives in reading this book fall to the wayside. My eyes and my attention are biased towards what others have marked as important.

When I read, I go in with an open mind. The exercise in judgement consists in reading, questioning the arguments, conversing with the author, looking for and deciding what is and what isn’t applicable to me and my problems. Reading ceases to have this adventure and discovery quality when someone has already done the work for you.​

Also, what matters to one person doesn’t always matter to another. My reasons for reading a particular book may be completely different to another’s. They may have highlighted a passage for it’s aesthetic quality. I might be looking for passages with practical applications.

What is salient to one person is irrelevant to another.

I don’t want my reading experience biased by what another person has highlighted.

Whenever you read, in fact, whenever you learn, do two things. First, look out for framing effects. You can’t eliminate them. Information without context isn’t very useful. But become aware of their presence and influence.

Second, don’t let other people dictate what is important to you.

That’s a decision you make for yourself.