The argument in favor of “new things” and even more “new new things” goes as follows: Look at the dramatic changes that have been brought about by the arrival of new technologies, such as the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, and the personal computer. Middlebrow inference (inference stripped of probabilistic thinking) would lead one to believe that all new technologies and inventions would likewise revolutionize our lives. But the answer is not so obvious: Here we only see and count the winners, to the exclusion of the losers (it is like saying that actors and writers are rich, ignoring the fact that actors are largely waiters — and lucky to be ones, for the less comely writers usually serve French fries at McDonald’s). Losers? The Saturday newspaper lists dozens of new patents of such items that can revolutionize our lives. People tend to infer that because some inventions have revolutionized our lives that inventions are good to endorse and we should favor the new over the old. I hold the opposite view. The opportunity cost of missing a “new new thing” like the airplane and the automobile is minuscule compared to the toxicity of all the garbage one has to go through to get to these jewels (assuming these have brought some improvement to our lives, which I frequently doubt).
Now the exact same argument applies to information. The problem with information is not that it is diverting and generally useless, but that it is toxic. We will examine the dubious value of the highly frequent news with a more technical discussion of signal filtering and observation frequency farther down. I will say here that such respect for the time-honored provides arguments to rule out any commerce with the babbling modern journalist and implies a minimal exposure to the media as a guiding principle for someone involved in decision making under uncertainty. If there is anything better than noise in the mass of “urgent” news pounding us, it would be like a needle in a haystack. People do not realize that the media is paid to get your attention. (For a detailed explanation on this see Trust Me, I’m Lying) For a journalist, silence rarely surpassed any word.
On the rare occasions when I boarded the 6:42 train to New York I observed with amazement the hordes of depressed business commuters (who seemed to prefer to be elsewhere) studiously buried in The Wall Street Journal, apprised of the minutiae of companies that, at the time of writing now, are probably out of business. Indeed it is difficult to ascertain whether they seem depressed because they are reading the newspaper, or if depressive people tend to read the newspaper, or if people who are living outside their genetic habitat both read the newspaper and look sleepy and depressed. But while early on in my career such focus on noise would have offended me intellectually, as I would have deemed such information as too statistically insignificant for the derivation of any meaningful conclusion, I currently look at it with delight. I am happy to see such mass-scale idiotic decision making, prone to overreaction in their post-perusal investment orders – in other words I currently see in the fact that people read such material an insurance for my continuing in the entertaining business of option trading against the fools of randomness. (It takes a huge investment in introspection to learn that the thirty or more hours spent “studying” the news last month neither had any predictive ability during your activities of that month nor did it impact your current knowledge of the world. This problem is similar to the weaknesses in our ability to correct for past errors: like a health club membership taken out to satisfy a New Year’s resolution, people often think that it will surely be the next match of news that will really make a difference to their understanding of things.)
Tag: Too much information
Can we do several things at once?
You can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and undemanding.
What happens when we’re trying to do things that are not so simple?
It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once. You could not compute the product of 17 x 24 while making a left turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try.
Intuitively we know this
Everyone has some awareness of the limited capacity of attention, and our social behavior makes allowances for these limitations. When the driver of a car is overtaking a truck on a narrow road, for example, adult passengers quite sensibly stop talking. They know that distracting the driver is not a good idea, and they also suspect that he is temporarily deaf and will not hear what they say.
Switching between tasks is costly:
frequent switching of tasks and speeded-up mental work are not intrinsically pleasurable, and that people avoid them when possible.
How to improve our performance?
The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.
But not too much focus
Intense focusing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention. The most dramatic demonstration was offered by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla. They constructed a short film (video below) of two teams passing basketballs, one team wearing white shirts, the other wearing black. The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players.
This task is difficult and completely absorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds.
Is that surprising?
Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual. It is the counting task-and especially the instruction to ignore one of the teams-that causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without that task would miss the gorilla. Seeing and orienting are automatic functions of System 1, but they depend on the allocation of some attention to the relevant stimulus. The authors note that the most remarkable observation of their study is that people find its results very surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there – they cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.
Still curious? Try reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
When consuming information, we strive for more signal and less noise. The problem is a cognitive illusion: we feel like the more information we consume the more signal we receive.
While this is probably true on an absolute basis, Nassim Taleb argues in this excerpt from Antifragile, that it is not true on a relative basis. He calls is the noise bottleneck.
Taleb argues that as you consume more data and the ratio of noise to signal increases, the less you know about what’s going on and the more inadvertent trouble you are likely to cause.
The Institutionalization Of Neuroticism
Imagine someone of the type we call neurotic in common parlance. He is wiry, looks contorted, and speaks with an uneven voice. His necks moves around when he tries to express himself. When he has a small pimple his first reaction is to assume that it is cancerous, that the cancer is of the lethal type, and that it has already spread. His hypochondria is not just in the medical department: he incurs a small setback in business and reacts as if bankruptcy were both near and certain. In the office, he is tuned to every single possible detail, systematically transforming every molehill into a mountain. The last thing you want in life is to be in the same car with him when stuck in traffic on your way to an important appointment. The expression overreact was designed with him in mind: he does not have reactions, just overreactions.
Compare him to someone with the opposite temperament, imperturbable, with the calm under fire that is considered necessary to become a leader, military commander or a mafia godfather. Usually unruffled and immune to small information —they can impress you with their self-control in difficult circumstances. For a sample of a composed, call and pondered voice, listen to interview of “Sammy the Bull” Salvatore Gravano who was involved in the murder of nineteen people (all competing mobsters). He speaks with minimal effort. In the rare situations when he is angry, unlike with the neurotic fellow, everyone knows it and takes it seriously.
The supply of information to which we are exposed under modernity is transforming humans from the equable second fellow to the neurotic first. For the purpose of our discussion, the second fellow only reacts to real information, the first largely to noise. The difference between the two fellows will show us the difference between noise and signal. Noise is what you are supposed to ignore; signal what you need to heed.
Indeed, we have been loosely mentioning “noise” earlier in the book; time to be precise about it. In science, noise is a generalization beyond the actual sound to describe random information that is totally useless for any purpose, and that you need to clean up to make sense of what you are listening to. Consider, for examples, elements in an encrypted message that have absolutely no meaning, just randomized letters to confuse the spies, or the hiss you hear on a telephone line and that you try to ignore in order to just focus on the voice of your interlocutor.
Noise and Signal
If you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor.
One can see from the tonsillectomy story that access to data increases intervention —as with neuroticism. Rory Sutherland signaled to me that those with a personal doctor on staff should be particularly vulnerable to naive interventionism, hence iatrogenics; doctors need to justify their salaries and prove to themselves that they have some work ethics, something “doing nothing” doesn’t satisfy (Editor’s note: the same forces apply to leaders, managers, etc.). Indeed at the time of writing the personal doctor or the late singer Michael Jackson is being sued for something that is equivalent to overintervention-to-stifle-antifragility (but it will take the law courts a while before they become familiar with the concept). Conceivably, the same happened to Elvis Prestley. So with overmedicated politicians and heads of state.
Likewise those in corporations or in policymaking (like Fragilista Greenspan) endowed with a sophisticated statistics department and therefore getting a lot of “timely” data are capable of overreacting and mistaking noise for information —Greenspan kept an eye on such fluctuations as the sales of vacuum cleaners in Cleveland “to get a precise idea about where the economy is going”, and, of course micromanaged us into chaos.
In business and economic decision-making, data causes severe side effects —data is now plentiful thanks to connectivity; and the share of spuriousness in the data increases as one gets more immersed into it. A not well discussed property of data: it is toxic in large quantities —even in moderate quantities.
The previous two chapters showed how you can use and take advantage of noise and randomness; but noise and randomness can also use and take advantage of you, particularly when totally unnatural —the data you get on the web or thanks to the media.
The more frequently you look at data, the more noise you are disproportionally likely to get (rather than the valuable part called the signal); hence the higher the noise to signal ratio. And there is a confusion, that is not psychological at all, but inherent in the data itself. Say you look at information on a yearly basis, for stock prices or the fertilizer sales of your father-in-law’s factory, or inflation numbers in Vladivostock. Assume further that for what you are observing, at the yearly frequency the ratio of signal to noise is about one to one (say half noise, half signal) —it means that about half of changes are real improvements or degradations, the other half comes from randomness. This ratio is what you get from yearly observations. But if you look at the very same data on a daily basis, the composition would change to 95% noise, 5% signal. And if you observe data on an hourly basis, as people immersed in the news and markets price variations do, the split becomes 99.5% noise to .5% signal. That is two hundred times more noise than signal —which is why anyone who listens to news (except when very, very significant events take place) is one step below sucker.
There is a biological story with information. I have been repeating that in a natural environment, a stressor is information. So too much information would be too much stress, exceeding the threshold of antifragility. In medicine, we are discovering the healing powers of fasting, as the avoidance of too much hormonal rushes that come with the ingestion of food. Hormones convey information to the different parts of our system and too much of it confuses our biology. Here again, as with the story of the news received at too high a frequency, too much information becomes harmful. And in Chapter x (on ethics) I will show how too much data (particularly when sterile) causes statistics to be completely meaningless.
Now let’s add the psychological to this: we are not made to understand the point, so we overreact emotionally to noise. The best solution is to only look at very large changes in data or conditions, never small ones.
Just as we are not likely to mistake a bear for a stone (but likely to mistake a stone for a bear), it is almost impossible for someone rational with a clear, uninfected mind, one who is not drowning in data, to mistake a vital signal, one that matters for his survival, for noise. Significant signals have a way to reach you. In the tonsillectomies, the best filter would have been to only consider the children who are very ill, those with periodically recurring throat inflammation.
There was even more noise coming from the media and its glorification of the anecdote. Thanks to it, we are living more and more in virtual reality, separated from the real world, a little bit more every day, while realizing it less and less. Consider that every day, 6,200 persons die in the United States, many of preventable causes. But the media only reports the most anecdotal and sensational cases (hurricanes, freak incidents, small plane crashes) giving us a more and more distorted map of real risks. In an ancestral environment, the anecdote, the “interesting” is information; no longer today. Likewise, by presenting us with explanations and theories the media induces an illusion of understanding the world.
And the understanding of events (and risks) on the part of members of the press is so retrospective that they would put the security checks after the plane ride, or what the ancients call post bellum auxilium, send troops after the battle. Owing to domain dependence, we forget the need to check our map of the world against reality. So we are living in a more and more fragile world, while thinking it is more and more understandable.
To conclude, the best way to mitigate interventionism is to ration the supply of information, as naturalistically as possible. This is hard to accept in the age of the internet. It has been very hard for me to explain that the more data you get, the less you know what’s going on, and the more iatrogenics you will cause.
The noise bottleneck is really a paradox. We think the more information we consume the more signal we’ll consume. Only the mind doesn’t work like that. When the volume of information increases, our ability to comprehend the relevant from the irrelevant becomes compromised. We place too much emphasis on irrelevant data and lose sight of what’s really important.
Many of us have constant access to information. We are so used to looking up the answer to any question immediately that it can feel like withdrawal when we have to wait. Of course, storing information outside of our brains is nothing new.
I came across this interesting study: “We investigate whether the Internet has become an external memory system that is primed by the need to acquire information. If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example, do we think about flags—or immediately think to go online to find out? Our research then tested if, once information has been accessed, our internal encoding is increased for where the information is to be found rather than for the information itself.”
The results suggest that our memory is adapting to the advent of new computing technology. The authors conclude:
We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found. This gives us the advantage of access to a vast range of information—although the disadvantages of being constantly “wired” are still being debated. It may be no more that nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.
Has anyone run across anything on how the impact of outsourcing our memory to Google and availability bias?
Here is the abstract from the study:
The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.
Source:Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips
Spending time alone, if done right, can be good for you. Certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around.
One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone.
We also happen to think more critically when we’re alone.
“People tend to engage quite automatically with thinking about the minds of other people,” Burum said in an interview. “We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.”
Perhaps this explains why seeing a movie alone feels so radically different than seeing it with friends: Sitting there in the theater with nobody next to you, you’re not wondering what anyone else thinks of it; you’re not anticipating the discussion that you’ll be having about it on the way home. All your mental energy can be directed at what’s happening on the screen. According to Greg Feist, an associate professor of psychology at the San Jose State University who has written about the connection between creativity and solitude, some version of that principle may also be at work when we simply let our minds wander: When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in what’s called meta-cognition, or the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts.
Other psychologists have looked at what happens when other people’s minds don’t just take up our bandwidth, but actually influence our judgment. It’s well known that we’re prone to absorb or mimic the opinions and body language of others in all sorts of situations, including those that might seem the most intensely individual, such as who we’re attracted to. While psychologists don’t necessarily think of that sort of influence as “clouding” one’s judgment — most would say it’s a mechanism for learning, allowing us to benefit from information other people have access to that we don’t — it’s easy to see how being surrounded by other people could hamper a person’s efforts to figure out what he or she really thinks of something.
Nicolas Carr with some interesting thoughts:
Situational overload is not the problem. When we complain about information overload, what we’re usually complaining about is ambient overload. This is an altogether different beast. Ambient overload doesn’t involve needles in haystacks. It involves haystack-sized piles of needles. We experience ambient overload when we’re surrounded by so much information that is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the neverending pressure of trying to keep up with it all. We keep clicking links, keep hitting the refresh key, keep opening new tabs, keep checking email in-boxes and RSS feeds, keep scanning Amazon and Netflix recommendations – and yet the pile of interesting information never shrinks.
The cause of situational overload is too much noise. The cause of ambient overload is too much signal.
…It’s a mistake, in short, to assume that as filters improve they have the effect of reducing the information we have to look at. As today’s filters improve, they expand the information we feel compelled to take notice of. Yes, they winnow out the uninteresting stuff (imperfectly), but they deliver a vastly greater supply of interesting stuff. And precisely because the information is of interest to us, we feel pressure to attend to it.
Nicolas Carr is the author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.