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.”