How Humans Make Decisions and Ascertain Truth in the Age of Data Smogizzle
Donald Trump, as both a candidate and now as president, has played so fast and loose with the facts that it has called into question how we as a culture think about important issues of truth. This article is one of a four-part series that explores the aspects of Truth in the Age of Trump. We examine what information overload does to our ability to manage information and sort fact from fiction, the role of disintermediation where the traditional gatekeepers are pushed aside and we can get our information (or misinformation) from favored sources, and the echo chamber where we only listen to voices that support our own ideas and biases. Finally, we explore where we go from here.
We are well into a time in which past hierarchies and boundaries related to knowledge and the dissemination of information have been deconstructed and blurred. Most recently, the growing realization of the consequences of this have created a dystopian haze on the horizon. While we have access to limitless information, many are beginning to grow mistrustful and doubtful about what it all really means. As the terms “truth” and “fact” lose credibility, it leaves people directionless and ineffective in their decision making abilities and potentially strips us of our ability to converse in diplomatic ways.
How, in the age of globalization and social media, do we make decisions and evaluate the stimuli from our environment? Psychologists and economists have long studied how humans process and organize information for the purposes of making decisions in order to understand why people feel and act the way they do— why they buy one product over another, their choice of political candidate etc. This comes down to how we organize ourselves in relation to the world and the data generated from it (i.e., the internet). Now that fact-checking seems passe and we are afforded more sources of data than ever, how do we discern what is the (non-air quotes) truth?
One of the primary dilutors of truth is the sheer quantity of information at our disposal. There are so many truths and it can be hard to distill from what angle and perspective a “fact” has been disseminated. This may be more problematic to some segments of the population than others. Millennials and Gen Z’er’s may be more accustomed to the onslaught of information, and appear to be more acclimated to taking in multiple sources of information at a time, to the extent that they become bored when things are not moving fast enough. These folks are also coming to be known for their hyper-vigilance: constantly scanning their environments and being sensitive to any change in them. Those who fall into these generations appear to have adapted to the information glut, while it can be overwhelming and polarizing to those who relied on a more limited, and possibly better fact-checked bounty of information in their formative years. Regardless of one’s ability to muster the resources to sieve through the information, the various mechanisms by which certain information becomes more likely to cross our field of vision are largely taken for granted, and individuals end up more polarized and self-righteous than they might other wise.
The Consequences of Information Overload
This gluttonous access to information has been referred to as an Information Overload (IO). IO impacts how we think, make decisions, evaluate facts/truths, and can also effect our emotional well-being. IO occurs when the amount of information we have access to becomes distracting and unmanageable. This creates anxiety, burnout, and then apathy. IO results from a number of factors, such as the increasing rate of information we are able to access. A premium is placed on the speed (“this just in”) and quantity. People are constantly checking news feeds, and our attention spans have become accustomed and shortened to a quick snippet or summary, allowing us to continue to “get caught up on the world.” Fact-checking is laborious. We’ve already moved on. It’s so 30 seconds ago. Another factor contributing to IO is the many more available channels of information— news, social media, various blogs (the irony here is not lost). There are so many options for information that now there are additionally an overwhelming number of options also for summaries of information.
IO is also exacerbated by the ease with which we can duplicate and transmit information. This leads to wide-sweeping, fast-paced dissemination of information— “It’s gone viral.” As a result, contradictions and inaccuracies are rarely investigated, and the speed and potential anonymity also makes it harder to verify the sources of information. Our access to information becomes a game of telephone with interpretation, misinsterpretation, repetition and so on. The signal-to-noise ratio potentially becomes so distorted that we hardly know, or maybe even care, what the origins of our information are any more. So how do we effectively make decisions when we are overwhelmed with information and facts and truths blatantly conflict?
Emotions are Hijacking our Rational Brains
We know we have more access to information than ever, but the way we go about making decisions about what is true hinges on how we process that information. We generally like to think that we make decisions rationally, based on logic and reasoning. It’s true that humans have this capacity, but research supports that we most likely are using this part of our brains less and less, as the rate and quantity of information increases. See, our rational brain is also a very slow and steady worker. It needs time to deliberate and digest. For example, if we were asked to solve a complex problem while walking or performing another task, we would most likely stop to think about it. Some might argue that modern life does not afford the time and space for rational thought. So this creates an issue in disseminating facts in an age of information overload (where information is tactfully laced with high emotional resonance).
Emotions on the other hand are big, powerful, and they are sneaky. Emotions lead us to filtrate knowledge in ways unbeknownst to ourselves and earn the AKA accolade as “the stranger within.” That is emotional reasoning is fast, intuitive, and always “on.” We need emotions to survive, so when news or “facts” tug at our emotions we are more likely than not to heed their siren song. And, our emotions are always present, always changing, and exert a very strong influence over our perception of reality. The importance of this, from an evolutionary and survival standpoint, is that our emotions are what keep us safe from potential threats. They have to be able to override reasoning when we need to avoid a predator or escape famine. Although modern society doesn’t offer these threats as readily, those same systems in our brain process and react to modern “threats” in the same way. That’s not to say that this part of our brains is dumb or a prima donna —it can often help us in situations when facts and reason are simply not enough.
Information Overload and How We Make Decisions
We may think we are making decisions or perusing information with a rational lens, but in all likelihood, especially in situations in which we have personal (i.e. emotional) things at stake, our emotional mind is there pinging away on autopilot. What is even more fascinating is that when we make an assessment based on our emotions, because our slower, diligent logical mind wants to impose reason on our thought processes, it follows up with a cover story for why we came to believe something that was based purely on emotion. It scours the facts and data that support and maintain our impulsive emotional reasoning. Other types of biases are also emotionally derived. This illustrates Confirmation Bias, where we tend to look for information that confirms what we already know (because it feels good to be validated), and explains why we watch a news station that supports our beliefs. We also tend to be affected more by loss than gain, or “Loss Aversion,” and tend to remember and make decisions based on not wanting to lose out or suffer loss rather than potential earnings.
There is also “Negativity Bias” in that we tend to remember negative events more than positive ones — fear based news and campaigning hinges on the fact that we will recall it more readily, and feel more impassioned by such information. We are also very motivated by group membership and acceptance (which also has its roots in survival— a thousand years ago an alone human was a dead human), leading groups who value harmony and consensus to take on otherwise irrational or dysfunctional mindsets. This has also shaped the ways in which information is absorbed and recalled— the more insidious the information is, the more likely it is to be remembered and repeated, even when the legitimacy of the information is questionable. Such inflammatory jargon sometimes goes by another name: propaganda. Could access to too much information come full circle in terms of being equally as detrimental to informed discourse as limiting access and strict censorship? Where is the sweet spot and have we surpassed it?
No One is Immune
It’s important to understand these states of mind because they operate in all of us— the consumers and the propagators of information. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio further evidenced the emotional basis for decision making when he studied people who suffered damage to the part of the brain from which emotions originate. These subjects were unable to feel emotions, but also, interestingly, found it very difficult to make even simple decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, but without access to their emotional inclinations, were unable to make a decision.
Furthermore, a major problem with our tendency to make decisions based on emotional reasoning is that the emotional mind is also often responsible for systematic and repeated mistakes. Because there is the strong emotional (i.e., survival-based) resonance coupled with our bias to support those leanings, these decisions or mindsets are hard to psychologically challenge. Alvin Toffler, in “Future Shock,” states that information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Humans, as decision makers, have a limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that an even further reduction in decision quality will occur.
Accountability in the Age of Information Overload
The internet has provided a formum for communicating ideas and sharing information that has huge implications for how we evaluate knowledge and take ownership of ideas. Information, be it fact or fiction, is collectively combined in the cesspool of the World Wide Web. Our epistemology (how we evaluate what is knowledge) and the ways in which we are held accountable for what we share, or ascertain legitimacy of information, are in some need of evaluation. While access to information via the internet may level the playing field for anyone wanting to contribute their ideas to the pool of shared knowledge, it clearly also influences the credibility and accuracy of information. The search for knowledge and truth seems to be fairly human endeavor, so there may be some biological hardwiring underlying this pursuit and the challenge in resisting the urge to pursue it. If the quality of information were better streamlined, sources were more reputable, and there was a hierarchy to the information, we might be able to better satiate this innate curiosity and get on with our lives.
The anonymity of information sources is detrimental to the quality of debate and allows for the “stream of consciousness unburdening of personal demons unchecked by the kind of self-monitoring individuals usually do in the presence of others” (Gary Woodward, The Fraudulence of Online Anonymity). Online, citations are not necessarily required and information is aggregated to support supposed truths. Furthermore, social media can provide ‘cyber courage’ — individuals are more inclined to disclose or not censor themselves, or even speak hyperbolically, behind the keys of a keyboard than they would be in person. The constant access to information and ability to express ourselves to a captive audience not only increases the permeability of our social filters, it also potentially sets us up for an incessant and infinite quest for “knowledge.” As we seek to decompress and mindlessly observe what the internet has to offer, the synapses in our brains are randomly stimulated and activated as we retain various amounts of information. Often this promotes curiosity and stimulation, rather than subduing it. Not only that, it has also become harder to take a break from our sources of information and this overload creates a restless, disconcerting fatigue; the result of exposure to various bits and pieces of data.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In essence, we have access to more information and data than ever, but are potentially making less informed and poorer decisions than ever — maybe even against our own best interests. One outcome from all this is the nationalistic and reductionistic backlash to globalization and IO which has the potential to spawn some pretty scary stuff when it comes to human rights. This push-pull leads to extremist polarization (TMI vs. censorship, no borders vs. walls, etc), when information becomes so saturated and emotionally driven.
In this miniseries we will discuss the implications of information-overload on attitudes, decision- making, and changes in society as a whole. We offer no judgment on the matter per se. The internet, social media, and even reality television are modern tools that are not likely to be going away — we just need to learn how to use them and live with them. We will, however, discuss the implications on society, policy, the economy, and our mental health.