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I Can’t Think!

March 20, 2011
A Newsweek article titled, “I Can’t Think!” by Sharon Begley reports about recent research showing the massive flow of data and information in our lives changes the way we make decisions. Begley says, “people start making stupid mistakes and bad choices because the brain region responsible for smart decision making has essential left the premises.”
The sub-title of the article is, “The Twitterization of our culture has revolutionized our lives, but with an unintended consequence—our overloaded brains freeze when we have to make decisions.”

We all agree that information is essential to making decisions, but according to the research too much information in the form of face-to-face conversations, phone calls, phone messages, e-mails, text messages, social networking, and tweets is a problem; “trying to drink from a firehose of information has harmful cognitive effects,” says Begley. “And nowhere are those effects clearer, and more worrying, than in our ability to make smart, creative, successful decisions.”

Here’s what happens:
• Paralysis – “Every bit of incoming information presents a choice,” says Begley. “Decision science has shown that people faced with a plethora of choices are apt to make no decision at all.” At a certain point, people get overwhelmed and opt out, or they make bad choices.

• Second-guessing – “In a world of limitless information,” says Begley, “regret over decisions we make becomes more common. People end up being dissatisfied even with good decisions.

• Sorting and remembering – The brain’s working memory can hold only about seven pieces of information; anything that’s important has to be shifted to long-term memory, which requires extra effort.

• The pressure to decide now – The rate at which new information comes at us subtly pushes us to make decisions more quickly than is really necessary.

• Responding to the most recent – “The brain is wired to notice change over stasis,” says Begley. “An arriving e-mail that pops to the top of your iPhone qualifies as a change; so does a new Facebook post. We are conditioned to give greater weight in our decision-making machinery to what is latest, not what is more important or more interesting.” Pace University professor Eric Kessler says, “We’re fooled by immediacy and quantity and think it’s quality. What starts driving decisions is the urgent rather than the important.”

• Evaluating information – The brain isn’t good at giving only a little weight to a new piece of information, says Begley – reflecting and putting things in perspective. With so much information coming at us, it’s very difficulty to discount or downgrade one particular item.

• Too much rationality – “If emotions are shut out of the decision-making process,” says Begley, “we’re likely to overthink a decision, and that has been shown to produce worse outcomes on even the simplest tasks.”

Begley closes with several pieces of advice:

  • Don’t try to keep up with e-mails and text messages in real time; deal with them in concentrated bursts at designated points of the day.
  • Analytical reasoning is only one part of a good decision; remove yourself from the flow of information and let your unconscious kick in.
  • Set priorities; if a decision hinges on a few factors, focus on them.
  • If you are a “maximizer” – someone who finds it hard to say no to more information – work especially hard at turning information off and taking the time to reflect.
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