The Psychology Behind Political Debate

How politicians use psychology, and what it means for democracy.

Why I'm Not Going on An Information Diet—At Least Not Yet

Do Americans need an information diet?

I listened this morning to an interview on NPR with Clay Johnson, in which he discussed his new book, The Information Diet.  I've not read the book yet, but it's now on my list --- though I'm not sure whether I agree with his conclusions.

In the interview, Johnson makes a catchy analogy; just as Americans eat too much, and don't typically make healthy choices regarding what they eat, we make the same mistakes when it comes to our consumption of information.  In the information age, we try to digest too much and we aren't as selective about whether the information we consume is "good" for us or not.

Like I said above, I've not read his book yet.  But there is no doubt that we are surrounded by information from all sources, and that we may not pay as much attention to source or the credibility of the information as we should.  So I am in complete agreement that we all should be more sensitive to the source and credibility of the information that we consume.

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That said, we also need to be careful as to how we might recommend that Americans go on an "information diet", because it is not necessarily true that less information will be better for us.

There are a few facts that we need to keep in mind.  First, as Anthony Downs argued decades ago in his book An Economic Theory of Democracy, information is costly.  The costs of information mean that rational individuals will seek ways to minimize these costs — and that means that they will rely upon shortcuts to become informed.  These shortcuts might be simple, like relying on a friend or colleauge, or they might be more complex (like listenting to NPR's morning digest of the news).  But information costs mean that people will rarely be well informed.

Second, it's not necessarily true that technology has lowered the cost of information.  Sure, there is more information available to us now — but that also means that we have to invest more resources in filtering that information. 

Third, there are many biases in human cognition that drive how we acquire and process information.  For example, I have written here in the past about negativity biases, and the implications of those biases for how people may acquire information about political candidates.  These biases need to be considered when we think about ways to improve the "information diet" of Americans.

What this all boils down to in my mind is not that Americans should consume less information, but that we need to figure out how to improve the quality of the information available for consumption that are consistent with how people gather and process information.  Doing that is not a simple task, especially when information flows so quickly.  But it's worth some thought, and I look forward to reading Johnson's book to learn more about his ideas for how to improve the consumption of high-quality information.

So until then, I'm going to stay on my information-rich diet.

R. Michael Alvarez, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology.

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