TMI: The Seduction of Data

The Seduction of DataIt was the Roman philosopher Seneca who once remarked, “The abundance of books is a distraction.”

(He said it in Latin, of course.)

Fast-forward 2,000 years … and we’re dealing with the same phenomenon – on steroids.

Jonathan Spira, author of the book Overload: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization, calculates that “info-inundation” and the productivity inefficiencies that emanate from it costs the U.S. economy around $1 trillion per year.

But how can anyone combat the information explosion and not risk missing out on something important? After all, no one wants to be left behind when it comes to “knowing what needs to be known.”

But there are some small things you can do to help control your information environment. Spira and others suggest a few tips:

  • Skim and scan information first rather than digging deep from the get-go. More than 80% of it is likely dispensable.
  • Set aside some quality “thinking time” to properly digest what is truly important from what you just consumed.
  • Engage in more “real-time” interactions with colleagues rather than wasting energy over long e-communiqués and missed communications.

A related issue is whether “too much” information actually hinders good decision-making. That possibility was studied by psychologists at Princeton University and Stanford University more than a dozen years ago in research that seems even more pertinent and consequential today.

The researchers studied two groups of people. Each group was presented the same set-up: A person with a well-paying job and a solid credit history is applying for a bank loan. The issue facing the two groups is whether to reject the loan application because a background check has uncovered the fact that for the past three months the loan applicant has not paid on a debt to his charge card account.

Group A was informed that the amount of the card account charge was $5,000 … while Group B was told that the amount was either $5,000 or $25,000. Participants could decide to approve or reject the application immediately, or they could hold off making their decision until more information was available.

It was later revealed to Group B participants that the applicant’s debt was only $5,000 rather than $25,000. So eventually both sets of participants had the same information upon which to make their decision.

The experiment’s findings, published in a report titled On the Pursuit and Misuse of Useless Information, revealed the interesting final result: In what clearly should be a cut-and-dried decision to reject the loan application, more than 70% of Group 1 participants dutifully did just that. They rejected the loan application, properly protecting the bank from undue financial risk.

Group 2? Only about 20% rejected the application.

The Princeton/Stanford study concluded that even though both groups possessed the same exact information, Group 2 revealed an intriguing blind spot when it comes to the way many people make decisions: They’re passionately interested in filling information gaps.

But the compulsion to seek out the added information can actually lead people to delay making decisions for too long … or ultimately to make the wrong one.

Making the siren call of info-inundation all the more dangerous, the explosion of information that’s at our fingertips thanks to the Internet means there’s always “one more report” … ” one more evaluation” … “one more perspective” to seek out and consider.

It’s the seduction of data … where sometimes “more” can be “less.”

2 thoughts on “TMI: The Seduction of Data

  1. The inflation of data is not information, just as information is not knowledge. Data is stuff.

    The most destructive fallout from this is that the data addiction feeds itself and people’s own lack of self reliance.

    It’s like insurance. The more you have, the more you’re aware of what you’re not insured for. I would not have given the person the loan simply based on what I see when s/he is coming in the door. Forget the paper, forget the numbers.

    Natural perception of reality has been exiled for a couple of simple reasons:

    . Data is stuff, and it is therefore a commodity and can be sold – the more the merrier. Making people addicted to what I sell them for $$ … what else is new?

    . Since our organizations are mostly structured hierarchically, every level has a vested interest in staying “up there” and/or climbing. Lower levels with a degree of self assurance or competence are a clear threat.

    I was fired from the only long-term employment I ever had, back a few years, for a single reason: I knew too much. I was management, but not high level. When I was asked to participate in top-level policy processes I complied, and a week later . . . there I went.

    I personally don’t bother much with the fleeting day-to-day information if it isn’t something that I can turn around and actually process and apply. Tell me how to insulate a greenhouse for little or no $$, I am listening. Tell me about yet another crooked politician . . . ..chrrrrr.

    And finally, I know the information business and how, for example, “double blind, placebo-controlled studies” are designed. Any data set is designed to serve a purpose. Will these factors be disclosed before I am fed the resulting data?

    It’s like the good old “how can you tell they are lying? Their lips are moving.”

  2. One problem with “information” is that most of it is either outright wrong or, at least, misleading. In a “Time” magazine review of David Freedman’s book, “Wrong,” Kayla Webley nets it out:

    “… about two-thirds of the findings published in the top medical journals are refuted within a few years. It gets worse. As much as 90% of physicians’ medical knowledge has been found to be substantially or completely wrong. In fact, there is a 1 in 12 chance that a doctor’s diagnosis will be so wrong that it causes the patient significant harm. And it’s not just medicine. Economists have found that all studies published in economics journals are likely to be wrong. Professionally prepared tax returns are more likely to contain significant errors than self-prepared returns. Half of all newspaper articles contain at least one factual error.”

    So it’s not just how much you know, it’s the QUALITY of what you know.

    And there’s more:

    Several years ago, a journalist asked Andrew Lytle (the former editor of the “Sewanee Review”) whether there were a place in an internet world for a quarterly literary review. He responded that it takes time to assimilate a book and more time still to think about what one wants to say about it. So … yes, he concluded, there is a place.

    Or there should be.

    It doesn’t do you much good to sift through mountains of information if it means there isn’t enough time in the day to separate the salient from the erroneous or irrelevant!,8599,1998644,00.html#ixzz27OzCCSKe

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