Charles Duhigg, in chapter 8 of his latest book Smarter, Faster, Better, perfectly illustrates the challenge of, as well as outlines a solution to, information overload.
6 years ago Patrick (aka General Knowledge) and I unknowingly dove head first into this world of cognitive psychology. It was filled with high-falutin phrases like cognitive biases and heuristics and dealt with heady topics like information literacy and neuroplasticity. But like I said, we didn’t know that. We were just responding to trends we were noticing at the time, trends that have only intensified since we started on this journey. Now, after finishing the audiobook of Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg, I feel even more like we were on to something. It’s just that we lacked all those pesky things like evidence and case studies, not to mention the correct jargon (e.g. wanna know what “the stupid gap is actually called?” read on).
You have to man-handle the data, literally
The final chapter of this book starts off with the story of how the South Avondale school system in Cincinnati drastically improved its test scores in just 2 years. This didn’t happen after they implemented some fancy enterprise level Ed. tech. software package, they’d tried that a few years before to no avail. No, results only started happening when they ditched the online dashboards and went old school (sorry couldn’t resist). Not that the data and analytics provided by the software were completely useless. It’s just that there was one fatal flaw in the software: No one was actually using it. So the principle discovered that once teachers had hands-on, analog interaction with the student data, through index cards and whiteboards, the information being gathered was actually put to good use.
“Rather than simply receiving info, teachers were forced to engage with it. South Avondale improved not because teachers had more information, but they learned how to understand it.”
Making Sense Takes Work
This illustrated the main, albeit counterintuitive, takeaway of the chapter: To make data more useful you have to make it harder to process. Which brings us to our 1st bit of jargon: disfluency. It’s a fancy way of saying harder to process, and it turns out is the secret behind making information more understandable and memorable. In the case of South Avondale, the act of writing down the data on index cards and hand charting the results on graph paper not only ensured they were actually seeing the data, but helped the teachers slow down long enough to notice patterns.
“Rather than passively absorbing data, teachers made the data disfluent; harder to process at first, but stickier once it was understood.”
This disfluency thing turns out to be a pretty useful tool once you realize it’s power. Adam Alter, an NYU professor who has studied this stuff, goes so far as to change the fonts on his lecture slides so that his students have to work just a little bit harder to read the sentences. Yes, even that little bit of hackery can do the trick. The important thing, according to him, is to force yourself to perform some sort of operation on the data, doesn’t matter what it is. That’s why when learning a new language or expanding your vocabulary, using the new words in a sentence or writing them down helps embed the new information into your brain. Or why taking notes by hand increases comprehension over typing it on your laptop, according to a 2014 Princeton study.
“When information is made disfluent, we learn more”
Disfluency helps with decision making too
Not only will slowing down to interact with information help you understand it better, it’ll help you make better decisions. This brings us to our next bit of jargon and the trigger that launched this whole crusade against the forces of dumb in the first place. When we first plotted our fictitious graph comparing the access to data index against our ability to deal with it, we proposed there was a widening gap between the two lines, a stupid gap, if you will. Well turns out there’s a more scientific term for it: information blindness. We might call it information overload now and blame it for that feeling of overwhelmed-ness we get after scrolling through twitter for an hour, it’s the force behind the phenomenon witnessed in a 2004 study by Columbia University where they saw a drop in 401K enrollment once the number of plan options went above thirty.
“In theory, the on-going explosion in information should make the right answers more obvious. In practice though, being surrounded by data makes it harder to decide.”
The solution? Inserting a filtering process that forces the flood of data down into a manageable trickle. In other words inserting some disfluency, like a series of questions that sift out the irrelevant data, to end up with a smaller number of options. Since according to Columbia cognitive psychologist Eric Johnson “Our brains crave reducing things to 2 or 3 options”.
Conclusion: Your Creativity can help us make sense. Oh and we called it!
The thesis of our presentation way back when, was that we the information consumer would need a new breed of sense-maker who could creatively shake up the ways we’re used to learning about stuff. What we didn’t know we were saying was that switching up the communication formats into infographics, animated videos and the like, adds a bit of disfluency, forcing us to engage with the information in a manner we’re not used to, thereby increasing the chance we’ll learn from and remember it. Because, let’s face it, there’s no getting around brain’s limitations. We need to slow down our consumption of data somehow if we hope to make any sense of it. And if that happens by making us look at it as a graphic novel, chart or rap battle, then so be it.
So in our own non-scientific way we kind of managed to stumble on to something. It’s of course nice to have a more skilled researcher and pulitzer prize-winning writer do it. So if you’re into that sort of thing I’d definitely recommend the book, which you can read with your eyes here or with your ears here.