Are we informing ourselves into inaction? How much information is too much?
What does an overload of information do to our decision-making process? This question becomes, at least in part, an issue of simplicity v. complexity, so I am reminded of Durkheim’s classic argument about social integration and regulation. Too much or too little of each causes problems – for him, various types of suicide emerge because of an overbearing or under-restricting/engaging society. Simmel’s conflict over the freedom, yet overwhelming choices of the metropolis also comes to mind. In each of these cases, it is a balance that creates a healthy/functioning individual. Perhaps this is the same with access to information. Too many choices makes it difficult for us to assimilate all the information, but too few choices would presumably not provide us with as much intellectual stimulation as we might desire. In our world, is there a balance? Or, are we so inundated with information that we’ve just become accustomed to being overwhelmed. Perhaps we’ve learned to filter what’s important to us – or, might we just miss things all the time because we can’t possibly take it all in? I’m sitting here, right now, with the news on TV and several windows open on my computer screen. I’m in the midst of working on several articles at the same time. That is arguably my personal style – perhaps one of chaos – but it is fairly representative of the general environment in which we all exist these days. There is a steady flow of information abounding at all times – everywhere we turn.
In the PBS piece below (a quite excellent video clip) , the story is about the economy and decision-making about investing, but this is a theme that carries over into much of our world today. Another issue with access to information is that it forces us to make more decisions than we might otherwise have to (see the “jam” experiment in the video). With more choices, people often opt not to make a final decision because it’s hard to feel like you’re making the right choice when there are so many options in front of you. This is a basic tenet of classic social psychological studies of cognitive dissonance. In choosing, we inevitably have to live with the downside of the choice we make and with the absence of the good qualities of the option we overlooked. If we’re presented with myriad choices, what happens then? Do we just become incapable of making any real decision at all – overwhelmed by the prospect of choosing, the notion that we might be missing out on something better or be stuck with something that’s not the best possible option? Especially if there are many other options, making a final decision means high odds of regret. Or, is this precisely why we rely on online stock tips, recommendations from other shoppers on Amazon and other online shopping outlets – we never really make decisions. We rely on these infinite sources of information to help make the choices for us. Social psychological studies also allow us insight into how we make ourselves feel better if we make the “wrong” choice; we externalize the blame. If that’s the case, I can write off the novel I didn’t like because I bought it on a recommendation from another reader or the computer I bought because someone online reported that it had a nice keyboard, etc. It’s not my fault – they recommended it to me! Perhaps the wealth of information makes it harder to make a choice, but easier to deflect the blame for problematic decisions.