Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Information overload

Something I am very interested in as a social scientist (even if it does't directly touch on the kind of things I write about on a day-to-day basis) is the concept of heuristics and biases. In effect, these are the things we use to make decisions without thinking - rules of thumb and innate leanings that we develop both as individuals and as a species. They don't always serve us very well, as when we cease worrying about earthquakes because there hasn't been one for ages (geologically speaking, the riskiest time) or when we start devising stereotypes and discarding any information we gather than doesn't fit what we expect to see (which is a big problem when you start considering how that impacts our perception of individuals we do't know very well).

Associated with this is the fact that we tend to default to snap, intuitive judgments when we don't have much time, or there is no obvious need to devote brainpower to a problem. Dan Gardner calls this 'Gut' vs 'Head'. Gut is a caveman, Head is a lazy teenager, and they're both fighting for control of the wheel. Whilst I think the book doesn't exactly break the mould - if you've read any social science, none of what Gardner says will be new - he does communicate the principles of evolutionary psychology and probabilistic judgment in a witty and engaging way, and I liked the analogies he uses to explain often quite inaccessible concepts. So, I will borrow the Gut/Head analogy, because it's a nice way of explaining the issue that has led me to write this post: when I buy shoes, Gut and Head have a falling out.

Gut was in charge when I bought these

No, really. More than any other item of clothing, shoes leave me painfully divided over whether to go for love or the practical option. With clothes, beautiful fabrics can seduce me into choosing something that it both beautiful and sensible, since half the joy of wearing clothes is the sensation of having something that feels amazing next to your skin. But there is no such pay off with shoes. Inevitably the shoes I love are not the ones that will do my feet any good at all. Hence, my Gut will pick a pair of shoes, and my Head will say 'no'.
Head: That's £88's worth of 'no, you're not having them'

So where does this leave me? Totally paralysed, usually. On the one hand, I am able to very quickly select shoes I love. (I mean...who isn't?). But when Head gets involved trying to select shoes I need, I usually end up confused and upset, flicking through 3,000 pairs of semi-identical black flats on Shopstyle, and so fed up that I no longer want to leave the house ever again.

This is another example of our dysfunctional brains, by the way. Rationally, you would expect that the more information we have, the better able we would be to make good decisions - because you could sum up which information corroborates others, and therefore which has the most weight. But we can't. Once we get past a critical mass of information, we freeze up, and can no longer prioritise which is most important (as Malcom Gladwell, the author of Blink, explains). And once I've put 'black flat knee boots' into google, it isn't very long before I'm reduced to a sobbing wreck, pummelled by information I don't want or care about.

Google helps us sift through information, but it also gives us access to a huge quantity of it. And it's virtually impossible to make meaningful decisions about the range of options now available to us. One shoe shop is manageable, but an entire globe's worth isn't. Which is why, without Gut (who has a penchant for 6" block heels in bright colours) to guide me, I can't pick shoes I will actually wear to save my life.

Perhaps I should just go with Gut and buy the blue snake print heels.

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