I’ve been inspired to write about decision-making in the Information age for a long time due to my own experiences with the data deluge brought on by the use of twitter, facebook, and the internet; but a lot of recent publications and media focus on brain health and behavior have pushed me to finally blog about the matter.
Speaking from experience , one behavioral consequence I attribute to the flood of information is a hair-trigger visceral response when inundated with information I deem irrelevant. Just give me the meaty bits! In 140 characters, or less 😉 . In an underhanded and unexpected way, twitter, which by design forces us to be succinct with our outgoing messages, has managed to turn me into more of a grouch about how I consume information. This has some positive AND negative consequences, I’ve found.
I quickly discard that which doesn’t inform me.
I TOO quickly discard some information; some of it having actually been necessary connective tissue in the body of a story. Although whether that happens largely depends on whether the writer has a traditional vs. non-traditional writing style.
The experts have been deliberating for some time about the subject, and they’re finally beginning to weigh in on just how the information flood is changing the way our brains process information, and also on how our attentional capacities are altered by our consumption of multiple information streams.
Most of us in the Western world think we’re handling the steady swarm of information like master multi-taskers, myself included. However, the bulk of new studies suggest that not only is my ability to focus and attend to a single task affected by all this information, but a more severe and scary process is occurring – that I’m becoming poorer at all decision-making!
Well, before I shot off a “How Dare They?!” at the perceived character assessment, I paused. I started to consider the ways that there might be some validity to this.
I wrote previously about the perils of multi-tasking and balancing life, which quite honestly is still a struggle for me; though I do earnestly think I’m a more effective multi-tasker now than I was a few months ago. I have the compartmentalization of tasks in a daily planner to credit for that. However, I’ve realized the flip side of the multi-tasking crisis that I now have to deal with.
First let me discuss some of the studies, and then their conclusions.
One study, conducted at the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, suggests that when faced with an increased load of informational units needed to complete a task successfully, a threshold is reached at which the Dorsolateral Prefrontal cortex ( DLPFC, my favorite brain region) decides to quit. The consequence is a drop in critical decision-making ability, a rise in anxiety and fear, and poorer performance in the task at hand.
A brief description of the experiment :
Volunteers are tasked with “combinatorial auctions”, a system which offers bidders a head spinning array of items that can be purchased in a package, or individually. The challenge is to buy the desired combination at the lowest price possible, a common economic type of decision. In order for the scientist to draw any conclusions, the experimenter must burden the volunteers’ decision-making ability so that the decision-making process can be scored.
Sure enough, as the number of combinations or choices that the volunteers were presented with increased, their performance went in the other direction and critical purchasing mistakes were made, resulting in spending more money than they would’ve had their choices been more well considered. In order to verify the biological link between the poor decision-making and poor performance, they were hooked up to fMRI machines while performing the task.
The scans confirmed scientists’ general assumptions, that during the task, the activity in the DLPFC , the critical decision-making region of the brain, increased as they were challenged. The novel finding however, is that at some point, presumably when the volunteer experiences “information fatigue“, the activity in the DLPFC dropped off and activity in the emotional centers of the brain, normally held in check by the DLPFC, began to increase. When this happened, volunteers’ performance sucked, correlatively.
In my opinion, this study forces us to examine a few questions about our personal decision-making process.
How do we tend to make choices in our day-to-day lives ? Do we decide based on the immediate presentation of information ?
Perhaps it’s easier to answer the question when it’s ” what will I have for lunch or dinner today ? ” where many of us, I believe, might make the choice based on what’s most palatable and rewarding to us at any given moment.
Alternatively, we might also decide based on foresight, or a pre-established guideline ? For instance, one might make that lunch decision based on a prior decision to eat healthier, for example. You might even have packed that lunch from home. Consider that the way we decide something as banal as this may have far reaching consequences, and warrant our closer attention.
How is Facebook, Twitter, Social Media, and the easy accessibility of the Internet on the whole influencing the way we approach decision-making ?
We have an ever-present connection to a literal universe of information at our hips through the proliferation of mobile computing and smart-phone technology. Is this fundamentally changing how we consume information , and thereby putting us at risk for “information fatigue” and inhibited DL-PFC’s?
How long can you go without checking your email, or how long is it between the realization that you’ve received a text message – you look at your phone- and/or you choose to reply or to ignore it?
Each of these events , the incoming tweet, status update, and text message represent a moment of choice for us. Do we acknowledge it, read it, reply to it, or decide to do nothing? 50 such events over the course of a day seems to me a reasonable number for the average connected person, but it’s also a heck of a lot to deal with and no doubt negatively impacts overall productivity. The case can be made that each event contributes to daily “information fatigue”. And what’s the consequence? Apparently, we ARE making poorer, more emotionally driven decisions; starting with that compulsory decision to attend to the message alert whenever our phone beckons.
The following section can be skipped if you don’t care to lose track by indulging my ramblings…
A few things dawn on me as I write this:
1. The Information age could hardly be called such without acknowledgment of the role of Personal Computing.
2. Another defining leap was made with the invention of mobile computing, and mobile phone technology.
3. The amount of information saturation we experience is indeed steadily climbing, just as our adoption of certain technology climbs.
Related to the previous question, ( Number one) about how we make food choices, is there a causal/correlative relationship between the adoption of personal computing and the way we make food choices- due to the very link the Temple University study identifies? I know the link between personal computing and obesity has already been identified in some fashion, however, I would be curious to find out whether DLPFC exhaustion due to the steady deluge of choices and information we undergo mediates and significantly contributes to this relationship.
I imagine it’s plausible, considering the neurotransmitter dopamine being implicated in normal DL-PFC function, and with the DL-PFC having connections with the Caudate nucleus- another Dopamine rich region of the brain crucial in modulating how we assign value, motivation, and reward to behavior. I can begin to imagine the experiment that aims to show such a connection. Anyone looking for a cognitive science thesis project ? I know I am.
The evidence suggests that not only does our decision-making suffer when given too many choices, but that we lose altogether the capacity to make ANY reasonable choice. Decision science has shown that people faced with a multitude of choices are apt to make no decision at all. This has been known and studied by Marketers for a long time now.
How many of you have those decisions that you know you ought to make, those tasks you know you have to get done, but they’re the least appetizing among a plethora of options, and so you postpone them; choosing instead to deal with the more immediate and pressing concern, or whatever you’ve currently evaluated as such?
Is that kind of procrastination a character flaw ? Or is it something that we can absolve ourselves of personal responsibility? Afterall, if the studies are true, and our brains are rewired and have adapted to the information overload by turning off our critical decision making centers, thereby allowing emotional judgment to rule our lives, how much responsibility can you own up to? This is a question for philosophers, and maybe some conspiracy theorists in some regard, but I pose it to you the reader , philosophy degree or not, conspiracy theorist, or not. Meeting your full potential in life may really depend on it.
I want to suggest that we who dive into the information flood waters, without metaphorical life preservers, are in danger of replacing the long-term positive and fruitful decisions we ought to be addressing , with the immediate decisions about whether to acknowledge, and reply to the most recent, and therefore urgent beckon for attention. This is a REAL CONCERN of mine, which I am forced to take even more vigilant strides to attend to, personally, and for those I love. I share this with all of you in the hopes you gain a new level of understanding about your own behavior, and can take corrective action to make sure you stay on the course your DL-PFC would have you take.
- You: The Science of Making Decisions (newsweek.com)
- The Multi-tasking Fallacy (brillianttimemanagement.wordpress.com)
- Study: Smoking Impacts ‘Decision-Making’ Part of Teens’ Brains (aolhealth.com)
- Neuroscience of Decision Making (psypress.com)
- Mind Mapping for Decision Making (wordsmithsuk.wordpress.com)
- How our brains optimize our rewards (mindblog.dericbownds.net)