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Decision Making at Warp Speed - May Be Warped

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MSN.com's "What Do You Think?" wants your vote on whether priests should be allowed to marry and have children. The White House, on its "We the People" website, has dozens of petitions, created by the public, which you can choose to sign. They vary from "Defund the NSA" to "Add the Waco Mammoth Site to the National Park Service as a national monument by Executive Order." Each has about one paragraph of explanation. Welcome to the world of digitally-assisted decision making.

Technology has given us the ability to do many things faster. Transactions that used to take days, such as processing a check, take seconds. Information that used to come in hourly radio broadcasts and daily newspapers now comes almost instantaneously. With the tap of a key, we can transport ourselves virtually to places and situations across the globe and collect research data that might have previously taken a college semester to pull together. Thanks to technology, we have instant information, instant analysis, and instant advice on just about any event or topic we care to ponder - and many we'd prefer not to. This, in theory, should enable us to make better decisions, which we can also now do instantly.

It is arguable, however, whether the speed with which can gather what we need to make decisions has actually improved our decision making. The one does not necessarily lead to the other. Indeed, there is both scientific and anecdotal evidence that the warp speed at which we live could in fact be warping the decision making that affects how we live.

To make good decisions, we need knowledge, diverse viewpoints that open up our thinking and our alternatives, and time to ensure we think carefully. Technology, however, is good at giving us information (not necessarily knowledge), may lead us to limit rather than enhance the diversity of our thinking, and may encourage us to decide too quickly.

"Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" T. S. Elliott asked in his poem, "The Rock." Indeed, information is just organized data, with which we are daily overwhelmed via the Internet, smart phones, texts, Twitter, and a host of other digital paths to our overloaded brains. Knowledge, by contrast, consists of concepts, theories or principles derived from careful consideration and weighing of information. Knowledge is judgment applied to information. We may have a wealth of information, but we may lack knowledge. Even further afield may be wisdom, which is judgment that stands the test of time, experience and rethinking. This conundrum is daily evidenced by the presence of really smart people (many of them brought to us courtesy of the Web) who do really stupid things.

My knowledge or wisdom, however, may not be someone else's. Thus, ensuring exposure to other views is essential. If you doubt the value of diverse viewpoints in decision making, consider the question former President Eisenhower asked President Kennedy after the latter, just a couple months into his term, approved the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. "Mr. President, before you approved this plan did you have everybody in front of you debating the thing so you got pros and cons yourself and then made your decision, or did you see these people one at a time?" Kennedy admitted he never held a meeting of his National Security Council to get a diversity of views, a mistake he thankfully corrected during the Cuban missile crisis a year later. The former was testimony to the danger of unchallenged thinking; the latter was a tribute to the power of hearing contrasting views (the initial decision to bomb Cuba was ultimately rejected in favor of a blockade).

Technology of course offers the possibility of more diverse views than we have ever had, but people often use digital diversity just to reconfirm views they already hold. In psychology, this is known as selective perception. The classic study in which Princeton and Dartmouth students both watched tapes of the same penalty-filled football game and each concluded that the other team committed the most fouls has been replicated many times in other settings. Research suggests, for example, that even if you give liberals and conservatives the same packet of information on a political topic, and that packet contains a diversity of views, each person will seek out and use the information that buttresses his or her previously held opinions. But more often, they don't access the same information. Conservatives do not usually go to Moveon.org and liberals do not often visit FoxNews.com. In this sense, technology may actually dampen diversity and make us more extreme by just giving us even more arguments to counter views we don't like.

A third danger inherent, though not preordained, is that technology will lead us to make decisions too quickly. As illustrated by our opening examples, technology encourages this. Instant polls on the most complex political and social questions, online petitions, social media blog comments, and the rush with which online news media post a story (to avoid being scooped) and add their analysis on the fly are all examples of technology's encouragement to come to quick conclusions. Having done so, we then call upon the powerful force of rationalization to defend the position we just took.

Indeed, we may be mentally programmed to come to quick decisions anyway, a process given a shot of steroids by technology. The research of Daniel Kahneman, Nobel economist and one of the founders of behavioral economics, compiled in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, argues that our default position in facing a decision is to rely on mental heuristics that enable us to size up a situation quickly and efficiently, make a decision, and move on. However, these mental heuristics get us in trouble when the complexity of the decision requires that we over-ride our "gut" or habitual responses. We can only do that by slowing down our mental processes. Deciding online, especially with instant polls, invites the very mental errors Kahneman warns us about.

Yet, though technology can lead us to be warped in our decision making, it can also lead us to be wise. The choice is ours. We can turn information into knowledge, we can ensure we access a diversity of views, and we can take time to think before we decide. Doing all three, however, will require us to slow ourselves down. In an age in which everything is speeding up, that may be the hardest challenge of all.