In a new article, Sharon Begley, Newsweek’s science writer, surveys the growing body of evidence indicating that an overabundance of information handicaps our ability to make smart decisions. One of the main causes of the problem seems to be that our conscious mind, which has trouble handling an onslaught of incoming information, seizes up when overloaded:
Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, … recruited volunteers to try their hand at combinatorial auctions, and as they did she measured their brain activity with fMRI. As the information load increased, she found, so did activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions. But as the researchers gave the bidders more and more information, activity in the dorsolateral PFC suddenly fell off, as if a circuit breaker had popped. “The bidders reach cognitive and information overload,” says Dimoka. They start making stupid mistakes and bad choices because the brain region responsible for smart decision making has essentially left the premises. For the same reason, their frustration and anxiety soar: the brain’s emotion regions—previously held in check by the dorsolateral PFC—run as wild as toddlers on a sugar high. The two effects build on one another. “With too much information, ” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”
Another reason is that our minds are inclined to give more importance to recent information than to older information, even when the older is actually more important:
The brain is wired to notice change over stasis. An arriving email that pops to the top of your BlackBerry 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. “There is a powerful ‘recency’ effect in decision making,” says behavioral economist George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University. “We pay a lot of attention to the most recent information, discounting what came earlier.” Getting 30 texts per hour up to the moment when you make a decision means that most of them make all the impression of a feather on a brick wall, whereas Nos. 29 and 30 assume outsize importance, regardless of their validity. “We’re fooled by immediacy and quantity and think it’s quality,” says Eric Kessler, a management expert at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business. “What starts driving decisions is the urgent rather than the important.”
The fact that we think less clearly when we’re distracted shouldn’t be a big surprise, but perhaps the hard evidence Begley reviews will give pause to those who labor under the misapprehension that, when it comes to information, more is always better.