Monday, March 07, 2011

Brain Freeze

The cover of this week’s Newsweek caught my eye, "Brain Freeze: How the deluge of information paralyzes our ability to make good decisions." I immediately flipped to the article, "I Can’t Think!" by Sharon Begley (I read the paper copy but you can find it online . Login required.)

In the article, Begley reported on a recent neurological study that showed a predictably high level of activity in the part of the brain which processes decision making and controls emotions when subjects were given extremely complicated decisions to make. But an interesting thing happened when the subjects received more and more information to take into consideration. That brain activity suddenly fell off, “as if a circuit breaker had popped.” They reached information overload. Frustration and anxiety became prominent. And, as researcher, Angelika Dimoka, put it, "With too much information, people's decisions make less and less sense." They experienced brain freeze – without the aid of ice cream.

Photo from

Further, Begley reports that research indicates that there are three ways that people end up making decisions when deluged with too much information. I see these coping skills applied to research behavior on a regular basis. Do you recognize any of these in your own practice?

Total Failure to Decide. This is what happens when you start the research process with a keyword search and become stunned by the extensive list of results. This is when you click over to Facebook® or YouTube®, which leads to destruction (a.k.a., procrastination).

Many Diminishing Returns. Making expedient (and regretful) decisions. The thinking is that any decision is better than no decision. At this point, you have already seen all the funniest cat videos on the internet and it’s time to just get it done -- without regard to careful evaluation. You trust whatever floats to the top and is available in full-text. Unfortunately, when you start writing the paper, you might find out that the articles that floated to the top of the list don’t say what you thought they did. This leaves you with two choices; to change the direction of the paper (which doesn’t usually mean your best work) or to go back to the search engine and look again, most likely turning your paper in late. Either way, it's not the "A" paper you planned on.

'Recency' Trumps Quality. "What starts driving decisions is the urgent rather than the important." In terms of research, you actually make an attempt to be a responsible decision maker by taking the time to evaluate your resources. But you base our decisions solely on what is the most recent information rather than on a balance of currency, authority (peer reviewed), purpose, objectivity, and writing style ( Do you discard anything that was published before 2010 as irrelevant?

But if you really pursue research, how do you know when you’ve found all of the information you need? "Especially online," says [psychologist Joanne] Cantor, "it is so much easier to look for more and more information than sit back and think about how it fits together."

So what is the solution?

It seems that the answer points toward giving it a rest. Learn when to “say when.” Stop gathering and hunting for more. Stop the Tweets. Turn away from the newsfeed. Turn off your smart phone. (Newsflash: It has an “off” button.)

In her conclusion, Begley reports that creative decision making requires down time to tap into The Neglected Unconscious. We’ll be better prepared to make wise decisions if we satisfice with the information we’ve gathered because sometimes the cost of “trying to drink from a firehose of information” has diminishing returns... but we have to start the research enough ahead of the deadline to allow for that down time!

1 comment:

Terri B. said...

Great topic and oh so relevant. Today I've got two laptops open in front of me and I'm using them both. Ack!