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Information Can Be Dangerous to Healthy Decisions

2011/03/07

Information is generally viewed as a good thing.  And the more information the better, particularly when facing some decision. Today we have Google and Wikipedia and Twitter and a hundred other ways to access more information quickly on any given subject than ever before in the history for the human race.  Surely we should be making better-informed and wiser decisions.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.  The sheer glut of information can work in funny ways to impede good decision making.  There are two basic threats posed by information:

  • Too much information
  • Too little diversity of information

Too Much Information

Recently, I was talking with a group preparing for a meeting on streamlining various organizational functions.  They wanted to make sure everyone had the “facts” on the situation … in fact, dozens and dozens of pages of facts.  Their only concern was that not many people would read the information before the meeting.  I agreed with their concern, but I also had more basic and more serious concerns about the effective use of information in the meeting.  A recent article in Newsweek (March 7) called I Can’t Think! outlines the challenges posed by too much information.

“Trying to drink from a fire hose of information has harmful cognitive effects.  And nowhere are those effects clearer, and more worrying, than in our ability to make smart, creative, successful decisions …. The booming science of decision making has shown that more information can lead to objectively poorer choices, and to choices that people come to regret. It has shown that an unconscious system guides many of our decisions, and that it can be sidelined by too much information.”

The article reports the work by researchers like Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University.  By studying brain functioning during decision making with more and more information to absorb, her research shows that “with too much information, people’s decision make less and less sense.”  Basically, the rational part of our brain simply begins to shut down.  The term “information overload” with its connotations of electrical overload and blown fuses may be more accurate than we all thought.

Too Little Diversity of Information

A second difficulty comes from too little diversity of the information.  That is, no matter the quantity of information, it will do little good if it mostly supports one perspective on the subject under consideration.  Unfortunately, we seem to be particularly good at stacking the information deck in our favor, as it were, without regard for the value of diverse views.

In an earlier blog (Saving Congress from Breathing Its Own Exhaust) I explored some aspects of this and noted a piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks who wrote, “we live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect.  They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality…”  (March 11, 2010, Getting Obama Right).   He was referring mainly to political decisions, but this is equally true in any area of decision-making about things that matter to us.

Healthy Information for Decision-Making

Since many of the most important, and most complex decisions are those that are(?)made in meetings, I will suggest three ways to use information in a healthier way.

1) First invite a diverse group of stakeholders to the meeting.  The diversity of their perspectives will help to ensure that decisions are based upon a broader consideration of variables.  Diversity may come from differences in functional specialties, levels of authority, and views of the issue.  But most important, the diverse views must all be heard and respected if the meeting is to arrive at a wiser decision.

2) Second, don’t overload the meeting with a large quantity of new information.  Some new information may be critical to framing the context of the decision to be reached, but too much detailed information brought into the meeting just to be sure everyone has the facts on all areas under consideration can lead to muddled thinking and/or various unhelpful emotional reactions.  Instead, trust what people already know.  With a diverse group in the room,  draw upon the power of their collective knowledge through dialogue and an appropriate means of reaching a decision.  Use the power of the internet to look up any specific information as and when it is needed.

3) Finally, don’t rush to closure on an important decision, particularly one where new thinking or creative insights are required.  Research, and perhaps your own personal experience, shows that more creative decisions can be reached when there is an opportunity to let the problem incubate without consciously working on it.  “Sleep on it” is actually very good advice when trying to reach an important decision.  In a meeting, this may mean planning not to reach closure before taking a break for lunch or dinner.  Instead, tell people you wish to complete the discussion when you can come back with a fresh mind.  During the “time away” from the decision you are unlikely to forget that it is unresolved and your mind will keep working on it. As one source put it, “the Zeigarnik Effect is the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete.”  When you return to the decision with a “fresh mind” you are not coming back to the same point you were at when you left off, but instead you have the benefit of the new thinking that has been going on while you (and the meeting participants) were doing something else.

Now I trust that Joseph, CAS’s local neuroscientist, will add his own perspective on the role of information in decision making.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2011/03/08 9:37 am

    Well yes, you are very true about too much detailing of information in present era. And, your evidence about it from the neuro-science perspective was quite convincing.

    By the way, your third point about healthy decision-making was interesting. You were talking about something called “Insight”. As you have mentioned, it is kind of a thinking that a person makes after he gets mentally refreshed, or let’s say “after a disengaging break”.

    Interestingly, it was how the great scientist Archimedes discovered the principle of liquid pressure suddenly as he was taking a disengaging break.

    Nice work, keep writing.

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  1. (Too Much) Information Can Be Dangerous, Period « An Economy of Meaning

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