In the age of big data, we tend to operate on the idea that more information is a good thing. The only trick, we usually assert, is that we have to figure out which data is relevant. As long as we can do that, bring it on. But new research from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business says you're probably still wasting your time.

The bias we should have known we have

In a series of studies, the researchers assessed how much information people needed to make decisions. Participants overpredicted how many cups of a drink they'd need to determine if they liked it, for example. Other participants wrote more essays than hiring managers actually read for a hypothetical management job. Based on the collective results, the researchers concluded that people have an unnecessary bias toward information, that we're insensitive to when more information actually will help, and that we don't actually use much of the information we gather when we make judgments.

Why ditch the love of information?

Overcoming this bias has two big benefits. First, raise your hand if you've ever felt like you needed more hours in the day. (*Raising my own hand here.*) Information takes time to get and analyze. If you have a basic concept of when your gut actually closes your ears to additional data you see or hear, you can decline additional research politely and move on to real action. That could mean moving forward faster with the specific project at hand, but it also might mean that you finally have time to, gee, I don't know, be yourself and relax for once. You could end up happier simply because you're freer to think of things other than work.

The second advantage has been married to time forever--money. If you can move on from information and work faster, you usually can negotiate better deals or bonuses. Employees don't necessarily work as many hours, so the amount you shell out to the workforce can be reduced. Additionally, information itself can cost you, whether that's in hiring a consultant or signing up for some kind of subscription. If you look at what you're really using, you might find that these resources are just more waste and can target them for budget streamlining. It's not all that different from cutting cable when you realize you watch all of two stations while paying for 100.

But the biggest boon is that, with more time and resources available from the cash you save, your team can come up with even more solutions, services, and products that can bring in revenue for the business. Those sources of revenue can continue years after initial launches and help keep your company more stable as you try to expand.

Looking at the findings another way, the researchers do have a caution. The tendency to make decisions very early can mean that people don't access all the information you have, which might skew their interpretation of your message. That means you have to think harder about which information is most critical to deliver and how you're presenting it. Don't assume that your audience is really hearing you--prove they are. You also shouldn't assume that the way to "get through" to people and change their minds is to just throw more facts at them. Those who have come to a conclusion early are not likely to accept those facts.

When psychological need and brain function collide

The final obvious question is, why do we have this information bias in the first place? Looking at the study about the essays and management job, the researchers assert that there's a strong desire to impress, which leads to overwork related to data. And generally speaking, we want to impress because we want to belong, and because we fear the loss of opportunity, security, or assets. This basic psychological drive conflicts with the brain's natural tendency to want to come to a conclusion fast so we can minimize the mental and physical energy we use and thwart any potential threats. And so our mountain of papers and emails and recordings grows, even as our minds already reject much of what's in it.

Grasping everything the research suggests, it might help to come up with some kind of personal standard for how much data you'll tolerate for specific tasks or types of work, such as limiting production research to several months. Get feedback from others, as well. This can help you sort out what doesn't need consideration and give you a better sense of when stopping is practical. But at the end of the day, just remember that you have to make a call at some point, no matter where you are with your data. Ask yourself, "What do I need?" rather than "What's still available?" Once you've answered your question authoritatively, it's probably safe to stop.

Published on: Feb 27, 2019
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