Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Saturday, March 5, 2011

I Can't Think

I just read an interesting article in the March 7, 2011 issue of NewsweekI Can’t Think by Sharon Begley, one of my favorite science writers. 

Newsweek, I Cant Think, by Sharon Begley

The main thrust of this article is that the many sources of information available to us instantly may be causing us to make poorer choices in lieu of better more thoughtful decisions.  The article speaks of how functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has been employed to show that the area of our brains responsible for good decision making, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, can literally shut down under information overload.  However the problem is compounded in a double whammy in that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex also keeps the emotions in reign.  So in essence, one’s ability for wise choice suffers from two problems, the decision making hardware shuts down, and the emotions begin to run amuck.

Begley reports in the article that the research in this area is pointing to specific problem areas:

•    Total Failure To Decide:  Too many choices can create a failure to decide.  Begley mentions experience with 401K plans.  The more choices offered by the plan, the less the rate of participation and those who do participate tend to choose the worse options.  I have had direct experience with this.  I found the choices and the explanation of the risks to be daunting and opted for the plan with the absolute lousiest return.  I always told myself that one of these days I will sit down and figure out what is the best plan, and I never did. 

•    Many Diminishing Returns:  As one collects more and more information on the various choices of a problem or decision, the advantages of the unselected choices tend to breed contempt for the choice made.  One will tend to suffer buyers remorse because all of the choices offered a huge cornucopia of advantages but any one selection has a limited number of advantages.  Hence instead of seeing your choice as the wisest among a set of competitors, you may see it as a poor choice among a total set of all the advantages—thus none of your choices could live up to your expectations.  Anytime I buy something somewhat complex, I am usually surprised to find within a day or so that “Jees this thing doesn’t have the franistat, and I was sure that it did.”  I will go back and look at my research and sure enough this model did not have the franistat but somehow in my decision process, I added the franistat in my mind.

•    ‘Recency’ Trumps Quality:  We tend to value the most recent information over older information often ignoring the importance of more relevant albeit older information.  This tendency leads to this observation by Eric Kessler, a management expert at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business:

“We’re fooled by immediacy and quantity and think it’s quality.  What starts driving decisions is the urgent rather than the important.” 

Hmmm.  I know some people that I would like to tattoo that quote on the back of their hand.  Which while I have my tattoo equipment out, I would tattoo this observation regarding immediacy on the back of their other hand:

“We’re being trained to prefer an immediate decision even if it’s bad to a later decision that’s better,” says psychologist Clifford Nass of Stanford University. “In business, we’re seeing a preference for the quick over the right, in large part because so many decisions have to be made. The notion that the quick decision is better is becoming normative.”

•    The Neglected Unconscious:  Have you ever had the experience of a choice or an answer to some problem just jumped into your mind at some seemly unrelated time?  You are not even thinking of the problem yet your mind is ruminating on it, off in one of the little visited side offices far from the control room of your conscious decision.  Such decisions should be embraced because one of the most powerful tools known to man have been quietly working on the problem trying to find a solution.  But for this process to work the incessant inflow of information must stop.  Your unconscious needs a stable set of fixed data to work with, it can not handle a constant ticker tape of new and immediate information.  The sheer rapid availability of huge amounts of information short circuits our unconscious processing because we find it difficult to stop inputting information on the problem.  This next web page or email may be the decisive factor, but invariably it is just more noise and that wonderful problem solver in your unconscious mind never gets the process command.  

So what to do about this influx of endless information which threatens to undermine our thinking and decisions?  Begley recommends realizing that your unconscious is a powerhouse of decision making.  She states that one should collect a reasonable amount of research on the subject, then stop…get off-line.  Focus on a limited number of strong points and ignore the chatter.  I would further recommend to stop thinking about it altogether after laying out the important parameters of the problem.  Just put the problem to rest and work on something else.  Take a walk outside or occupy your self with mindless busy work.  Give it a little time and suddenly you may be floored with the insight that just drops out of nowhere.  Then have the courage to run with the decision that your mind handed you, free of charge, and almost guaranteed to be the best solution available.

When you think of it, we are part of a massive social experiment.  For those of us old enough to get junk mail from AARP think back to when you were a kid and you had to research some project for school.  You went to the library and found a few books and some periodicals.  You copied as much information as you could and basically regurgitated it to your paper switching around enough words and dumbing down the language so the teacher wouldn't accuse you of plagiarism.  Now with a few clicks of a mouse on a high speed Internet connection, you can have a volume of information that would take months to sort through. What does the weight of this onslaught of instantly available information do to our ability to critically think about a problem? How does one discern the facts from opinion or outright propaganda?  There is no control of what appears on the Internet.  How does this affect the mass thinking of a society or culture?  Are we going to lose the ability to think for ourselves because the apparent correct answer is two clicks away?  How vulnerable are we to manipulation?  For instance, by merely applying a few easily changed logic rules, search engines can manipulate the order in which results are displayed.  Could we be manipulated by a search engine posting what it considers favorable results on a specific issue first and burying detrimental results 4 or 5 pages deep?  In some ways technology can be extremely frightening.     

The article mentioned a book by James Gleick The Information.  A History, A Theory, A Flood.  In one of those of odd coincidences, I have seen this book referenced in several other places in the past few days.  Some internal counter clicked but the book seemed to fail to take root in the dim light of the fire of my conscious.  When I saw it mentioned in the Newsweek article, I immediately went to Amazon and bought the book for my Kindle without even reading the description.  Click…slam, bam, in less than 60 seconds I am the proud owner of a book that I made little effort to research.  I don’t believe the gist of the article was to buy impulsively, yet that is what I did.  James Gleick is an excellent author.  I doubt I will be disappointed.  Yet why would I, in the middle of an article on decision making, buy a book without reading the description?  I had a flash of insight that this would be an excellent book!

Book Cover

Below is a description of The Information from Random House.

James Gleick, the author of the best sellers Chaos and Genius, now brings us a work just as astonishing and masterly: a revelatory chronicle and meditation that shows how information has become the modern era’s defining quality—the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world.

The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanishes as soon as it is born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long-misunderstood talking drums of Africa, Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information: Charles Babbage, the idiosyncratic inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Byron, the brilliant and doomed daughter of the poet, who became the first true programmer; pivotal figures like Samuel Morse and Alan Turing; and Claude Shannon, the creator of information theory itself.

And then the information age arrives. Citizens of this world become experts willy-nilly: aficionados of bits and bytes. And we sometimes feel we are drowning, swept by a deluge of signs and signals, news and images, blogs and tweets. The Information is the story of how we got here and where we are heading.

The book is available at, The Information.

Image Credits

Newsweek, Matt Mahurin

Dr. Shock MD, PhD.Neurostimulating Blog,   Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex

Random House, The Information Book Cover

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