Is reading the most efficient way to consume information?

The average reader is a speed reader. says they assume their average readers read at 275 words per minute (wpm) (or sometimes they claim 260 wpm). I averaged their estimated reading speed for nine essays and they really estimated an average reading speed of 241 wpm although I didn’t include time for appreciating pictures since they didn’t seem any more relevant than the picture I posted above. estimates that the first photo adds 12 seconds and slightly less for subsequent photos.

Any of the above rates are speed-reading compared with speaking which is only about 100-150 wpm, and because there are about 250500 words per page, it is equivalent to reading about 30 to 60 pages an hour! If your average book is about 250 pages long, then you can read 50 books per year by just spending a little over 30-60 minutes per day reading. Why doesn’t everyone read that much? The median American only reads 4 books per year. That only takes about five minutes per day on average.

Despite some wild claims, the best speed readers probably don’t read faster than about 600 wpm with reasonable retention. Anything faster than that is just skimming, and there is no point skimming literature. But much of a nonfiction book can be skimmed and one of the great features of reading is that sometimes you want to skim and other times you want to slow down and focus more. That is very difficult to do with any other medium.

In general, reading is the most efficient medium for absorbing information because:

1.Video and audio information is harder to organize efficiently. 

It is harder to carefully organize information in video/audio than in print.  The printed word (with graphics) is the best medium for creators to carefully organize ideas into a logical structure whereas video/audio is best for rapidly throwing ideas together in an entertaining and persuasive way as demonstrated by the plethora of cheaply-produced call-in talk shows and interview programs throughout the media.  When video producers want well-organized information, they almost always begin by writing it out on paper on a story-board and/or a detailed script which is later read for recording.  The audience would usually be better informed if we could just read the scripts.  It is simply too easy to produce a stream of words in audio/video and that ease makes the word choice and organization less careful.  The difficulty of putting words and images on a page forces the author to think carefully and precisely about what is being communicated.  For the same reason, students learn more by taking notes by hand on paper over typing on a computer.  Because it is faster and easier to type, students aren’t as careful about what they write and don’t need to think as much about the topic.  Handwriting averages about 22 words per minute at best whereas typing is about 33 wpm.

We don’t talk as clearly as we write. As John Green said, “The problem with actual human speech is that it does not take place in the form of sentences.” Real-life speech is full of:

Repetition. Repetition.
Stu-stut-stuttering, slllurrring, lithping, or mumbrbl…
Collecting yourself, sorry, no, correcting yourself.
Whatsitcalled, um… disfluencies, you know, placeholders while you think.
And, like, being all, like, incorrigible with their use of “like.”
Some sentence when the grammar ain’t no good….
Going off on tangents which aren’t relevant to the plot. Like platypi. Or falafels
Awkward silences and spaces where people… note .
Verbal Ticsdesu.
Sneezing, coughing and *cough* *cough*, ahem, and so on…
Just letting sentences kinda…
Pauses or, y’know, interjections — right? — to make sure that the person understands. Get it?
Saying the wrong word by accident, and hoping nobody else involved in the constipation will notice…
Oh, and sentence fragments. Obviously.

(Another benefit of text, discussed below in #3, is that you can more easily skim/skip over bad writing like the above quote and don’t need to spend much time on it if you don’t want to.)

Only text can be organized into lists and outlines and paragraphs that gives the creator more power to organize it in a way that is more meaningful than would be possible with pure audio/video.

2. Video/audio information appeals more to irrational emotions and eye-candy

Authors (and producers) have more incentives to prioritize style over substance in video because it is much easier to elicit emotion using video and that brings in (and keeps) viewers.  The words ‘bloody murder’ elicit much less emotion than a bloody photo of a murder victim. That photo, in turn, elicits much less emotion than a video of a girl getting shot with the sound of sobbing and the death rattle of breathing her last breath. 

It is far easier to suck in viewers with sexy images than with words describing sexy images and more appealing yet when sexy images are moving.  This is why advertisers much prefer images and videos over words. They are trying to distract people from their primary thoughts and then persuade rather than inform.

As Stephen Pinker wrote in The Guardian:

Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. Not surprisingly, many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving. People rank tornadoes (which kill about 50 Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than 4,000 Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.

The data scientist Kalev Leetaru applied a technique called sentiment mining to every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, and to an archive of translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Sentiment mining assesses the emotional tone of a text by tallying the number and contexts of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible, and horrific….  

News outlets [around] the world… became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day. The consequences of negative news are themselves negative. Far from being better informed, heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling, and sometimes they part company with reality altogether: a 2016 poll found that a large majority of Americans follow news about Isis closely, and 77% agreed that “Islamic militants operating in Syria and Iraq pose a serious threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” a belief that is nothing short of delusional.

Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases, … complete avoidance of the news.” And they become fatalistic, saying things like “Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.”

This is a much bigger problem with TV news than with print news, but the lines are blurring with traditional print organizations like the New York Times adding video and more flashy content to compete with more sensational outlets.

There are bad incentives for journalists to appeal to the irrational knee-jerk emotions  and unfortunately negativity sells in news, but it is particularly skewed in TV news which prioritizes emotional interviews and vivid images of disasters over less sensationalist issues that are more important but don’t suck viewers in with reptilian-brain emotions.  The best way to avoid this kind of media bias is never turning on the TV news because print news is so much better quality and can be absorbed much more quickly.

3. Video/audio is linear and passive by nature. 

Reading is the most actively engaging way to get information because active readers choose what to read and what to skim or skip and what to re-read (called “regression” by scholars) and pause and think about what you have just learned.  None of that happens with TV or radio news which is simply served to a passive audience who only chooses whether to tune in or out and cannot be engaged in actively deciding what information is important.  Almost every reader only selects less than 10% of any major newspaper because readers actively select what stories are important to them and skip the rest, but you cannot do that with TV or radio news.  All you can do is passively listen to whatever news is on regardless of what it is and the newscasters know that they keep eyeballs with sensationalism, not substance so they focus on sensationalism.  Print is completely different.  There is still way too much sensationalism in printed news, but there is less and most importantly, it is much easier to skip the crap because the printed word is the best medium for active, non-linear information gathering.  Hyperlinks make reading even more non-linear and engaging.

One reason why audio/video is tends to be so repetitive is that the listener cannot easily “regress” and repeat an important part. So good producers insert more repetitiveness to emphasize important points, but even the best producer cannot know what needs to be repeated for any particular person and it is harder to skim over repetition in audio/video when it is merely redundant for a listener.

It is harder to search audio/video for keywords (unless it is converted to text) and it cannot be as easily skimmed through to skip irrelevant parts and look for the most important.

4. Video and audio are bad for communicating the reliability of information

With video & audio, there is no easy way to cite sources and so sources are neglected.  It is harder to go back and correct mistakes in video/audio than in print.  This makes information in video and audio less reliable than in print. Just the ability to use quotation marks in text makes it much easier to attribute work to other people. In fact, videographers often resort to displaying a video of a text in order to visually cite a source, and that demonstrates the power of writing.

5. Video/audio is a slower way to gather verbal content

Most college-educated people read much faster than people talk. We are all speed readers in a sense. Americans speak at less than 150 words per minute, but most people think at at least twice that fast. There are varying estimates of just how fast people can think ranging from 400 wpm to 4000 wpm. It is a difficult research question and part of the variance in estimates studying different kinds of internal speech, but everyone agrees that people think much faster than they speak.

Part of the overwhelming evidence for the fact that people think faster than they speak is that normal, college-educated readers comfortably read almost twice as fast as they speak. So even normal readers are speed-readers compared with how they communicate out loud. Deaf people routinely like to speed up movies because they read the closed captioning much faster than the actors can say the words.

Another piece of evidence that people think twice as fast as they speak is that most people can easily understand speech that is sped up by double or more with a little practice. In fact, blind people have a superpower for listening to rapid speech partly because they are used to getting most of their information through their ears and so they like to speed it up. Again, the limiting factor that has previously prevented people from understanding rapid speech has been the difficulty of producing it given the limitations of the physiology of the human mouth and breathing tube.

Auctioneers with training can speak at 300 wpm, but they mostly say repetitive words because otherwise their intonation and consonants would be too slurred to understand. But computers can speak faster than humans and they can speed up a recording of anyone’s normal speech and preserve all the consonants and vowel sounds so that anyone can understand.

digitally accelerated speech is more intelligible than the natural speech of a person talking rapidly. ”When you try to speak faster and faster, speech gets very blurred,” Ms. Janse said. The distinctions fade, she said, whereas digitally accelerated speech uniformly preserves all the crucial intonations and inflections.

Older analog technologies made people sound like chipmunks because speeding up speech caused pitch shift, but digital acceleration preserves the tone exactly and sounds completely normal after you get used to it.

The fact that people think at least twice as fast as they speak (in wpm) is why it is so crucial to practice presentations out loud if you want to know how long your presentation will take. Most neophyte presenters practice in their heads because it feels awkward to say everything out loud, partly because it feels too slow and inefficient. But then when they actually have to give the real presentation and say everything out loud, they don’t have nearly enough time to finish because everything takes twice as long as when they practiced it because the speed of thought is at least twice as fast as the speed of the tongue. That is one reason why formal presenters have a tendency to speak unnaturally fast.

UPDATE: I’ve come to decide that audiobooks can almost rival reading as a medium of gathering information because modern audiobook players do such a good job of speeding up the audio by 100%.

I used to hate how SLOOOOOW audiobook narrators read because my mind tended to wander when there was so little information coming in. But when sped up double time, I find it is much easier to focus because there is more information to absorb and I become a more active listener who pauses the audio to think sometimes and occasionally rewinds to repeat sections for better understanding.

Unfortunately, only about 5% of audiobook users have ever tried listening at a faster speed because it feels unnatural at first. But with only a few hours of practice, anyone can get high comprehension from speech that is double-speed and it is worth experimenting with what speed feels best. After a short while, normal speed speech begins to feel uncomfortably slow. So if you listen to audiobooks or podcasts, you can get much of the efficiency of reading by using a good digital player that can speed up the speech. Some players claim to have better algorithms for speeding up audio, but I have found them all to work amazingly well. Digitally sped-up audio always sounds clear and has about the same intonation as the actual person. It is nothing like the old analog speed-up technologies that made people sound like chipmunks.

Although audio has its advantages, reading is still overall the most efficient and productive way to get verbal information, but sometimes you need your eyes for something else like keeping the car on the road and sped-up audiobooks are fantastic while gardening, washing dishes, or taking a walk. That versatility is why audiobook sales are rapidly growing. They grew about 25% in 2018.

What is video best for?

As mentioned above, video is best for appealing to the lizard brain and getting people’s attention. Video helps people feel more connected to one another. It is also the best, obviously, for showing motion, but unless you are doing a how-to video that shows the complex motions for taking apart something, motion usually isn’t necessary for communication and can be a distraction. That is why recipes are usually communicated in print rather than in video format even though recipes are undoubtedly the most commonly used how-to instruction genre of all time. The population of literate adults probably uses recipes more frequently than all other forms of how-to instructions combined and recipes simply work better in text than in video. But some how-to instructions like for car repairs are better in video.

You can overcome some of the problems of video by adjusting the speed of play. That makes video more interactive and efficient, just as mentioned above for audio. There are are open-source Chrome & Firefox addons that can speed up or slow down movies and Netflix shows and Youtube videos. I find that most movies and videos are more interesting and engaging when sped up, and as mentioned earlier, deaf people like to speed up movies because they can read the closed captioning faster than most people speak. But when I’m listening to movies in Spanish, I often like to slow down the speech so I can catch every word. At about 80% speed, I can understand the most difficult Spanish much better and feel less frustrated. I like to adjust the speed up and down using the keyboard depending on the type of scene I’m watching. It even allows you to fast forward past YouTube commercials!

Posted in Culture, Personal (not econ)
One comment on “Is reading the most efficient way to consume information?
  1. […] check everything for accuracy. TV news tends to be worse at fact-checking than printed news because video productions simply tend to be more rushed and sloppier than written work. In particular, the live broadcasts interviews that FOX and CNN specialize in are impossible to […]

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