Do You Know When Too Much Information Can Hurt You?


Knowledge is power, right?


Not necessarily. There are very specific situations in which less data leads to faster, better decisions. In his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, Gerd Gigerenzer shares six such conditions:


A beneficial degree of ignorance. In many cases, a simple rule of thumb works far better than complex analysis or calculation. For example, Gigerenzer explains how baseball outfielders catch a fly ball. Calculating the trajectory of a baseball is incredibly complex, yet outfielders make it look easy. Gigerenzer argues this is because an outfielder simply "fixes his gaze on the ball, starts running, and adjusts his running speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant".


Remaining ignorant of all the flight data and potential calculation methods produces faster and more accurate results.


Unconscious motor skills. I was in a bar last week and stopped in the middle of a conversation to swivel around in my chair and get ready to move. Why? I sensed that a man on the other side of a table (and glass half-wall) was out of control. An instant later, he pushed away from his companions and leaped towards the wall that separated us; I was already facing him because the systems that keep me safe picked up on the threat even though my focus and conscious mind had been elsewhere. Fortunately, others grabbed him from behind and the threat passed.


All the data I needed from this loud and packed room was concentrated in the space very close to me; data from every corner of the large room would have slowed my reaction time.


Cognitive limitations. "Our brains," writes Gigerenzer, "Seem to have built-in mechanisms, such as forgetting and starting small, that protect us from some of the dangers of possessing too much information. Without cognitive limitations, we would not function as intelligently as we do." In other words, we just don't have the processing power to analyze huge amounts of data. Big Data can be a big problem when it comes to wrapping your human mind around it.


The freedom-of-choice paradox. Most of us don't want more choices; we simply desire better choices. If I give you a list of seven million Amazon book titles, you will be overwhelmed. But if I ask you to choose between five highly-rated books within your preferred genre, you will probably be quick to select one.


More choice often leads to decision paralysis.


The benefits of simplicity. Just as with the baseball example above, simple rules of thumb often function better than more complicated options. "Don't invest in entrepreneurs you don't like" is a simple rule of thumb that some VCs use to simplify complex investment decisions. They often allow you to avoid "wise" choices that look good in theory but that would result in horrific outcomes in the real world.


Information costs. Gathering, storing, and analyzing information has many associated costs. For example, in health care, running tests on patients is expensive and often causes patients discomfort and anxiety. Waiting to gather more information also slows decisions and reduces the nimbleness of business competitors.


Former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell explains, "My own experience is that you get as much information as you can and then you pay attention to your intuition, to your informed instinct. Sometimes what my analytical mind says to me is not what I’ll do.


"Generally you should act somewhere between P40 and P70, as I call it. Some time after you have obtained 40% of all the information you are liable to get, start thinking in terms of making a decision. When you have about 70% of all the information, you probably ought to decide, because you may lose an opportunity in losing time. In the military, we are also taught to only use one-third of the available decision-making time, so that our subordinates have time to go through their own decision processes when they learn what we want them to do."


I once was an enthusiastic proponent of gathering huge amounts of data about individual customer preferences. But over time I have seen that too much data paralyzes both executives and their companies.


Beware that your efforts to act more intelligently don't lead you in the opposite direction; only gather more data when it will lead to better decisions, not worse.


(This blog was first published on LinkedIn. It has been re-posted here with prior permission from Bruce Kasanoff.)


(Image Courtesy: Pixabay.com)

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Bruce Kasanoff

Bruce Kasanoff helps companies empower and inspire their employees. He brings relentlessly positive messages of personal empowerment, flexibility and clarity. ...

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