Keeping Our Heads Up While Drowning in Information

Everyday, every hour, every minute, and even every second we are faced with decisions.  Some of these decisions are monumental, while some are miniscule.  In her article titled “I Can’t Think!”, Sharon Begley explores some of the shortcomings that most people experience in today’s information saturated culture.  The main concern that she focuses on is the sheer quantity of data that we have at our disposal.  At any given moment we can access entire libraries worth of data.  This is actually detrimental to making a good decision.

“But wait,” you ask, “isn’t accurate information needed to make a good decision?”  To a point it is.  However, there comes a time when there is too much information and a portion of the brain literally shuts down.  This part of the brain that stops functioning is actually the part that is responsible for unconscious decision-making.  When this portion ceases to work, then we are more likely to over-think a decision and consequently choose an option that is not the best choice.

Not only does a high quantity of data overload our brains, but it also gives us more information than we need.  Begley uses the example of a graduate looking for a new job:

“The more sources and kinds of information (about a company, an industry, a city, pay, benefits, corporate culture) they collected, the less satisfied they were with their decision. They knew so much, consciously or unconsciously, they could easily imagine why a job not taken would have been better.”

So it would seem that knowing every small detail about a big decision doesn’t necessarily bring about the best results.  Begley refers to this phenomenon as “Diminishing Returns.”

One last intriguing thing about the brain is that it actually sorts the information as it receives it.  The most recent information is given a higher value than the older information, which in fact may be more important.  “We pay a lot of attention to the most recent information,” says George Loewenstein, “discounting what came earlier.”  This rings true in my life.  When researching, I often bounce around from one extreme to the other based on the most recent findings.

We live in a world of information and data.  Our poor brains just can’t keep up with everything that is going on.  Sometimes we just need to stop and give our minds a chance to catch up.  Closing her article, Begley gives a piece of sage advice to information junkies: “the best prescription for you might be the ‘off’ switch on your smart phone.”

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