The Paradox of Information: More Data Is Making Us Dumber
Your smartphone might actually be making you stupid.
Posted April 11, 2016
It’s been said that more data has been created in the past couple of years than in all of history. We’re now immersed in more facts and figures than ever before. So it would make sense that our decisions are becoming more informed and logical, right? Unfortunately, there’s also a paradox in play in the age of information. Stated simply: access to more data can lead to dumber decisions. That’s right. Your smartphone might be making you stupid.
Perhaps you haven’t made the dumb decision to walk into oncoming traffic while snapchatting, but many of us are guilty of wasting countless time mindlessly spiraling down the social media vortex. While epic fails, pranks, puppies, plates of food and duck face selfies vie for our attention, they also draw from our most precious resource of all, human consciousness. While we gain an ephemeral hit of dopamine, we lose a moment of thoughtful reflection.
Take for instance the most important decision many Americans will make this year, voting for our next president.
At a time when our nation faces critical issues surrounding global terrorism, national security, economic stability and the education of our children–the tenor of the campaign trail has become completely unhinged from common sense. We remain fixated on Hillary’s private emails and pantsuits, Trump’s little hands and private parts, Fiorina’s face, Rubio’s height, Christie’s weight or Cruz’s wife. We’ve regressed into a nation of fifth graders running amuck at recess.
Whether you agree or disagree with senator Cruz, you’d be better served to pay attention to the words coming out of his mouth during the debates, rather than that “cringeworthy” crumb dangling from his lip. And think for a moment…how is it logically possible that a candidate by the name of “Deez Nuts” was able to approach double digits in the polls without even having to say a single word?
There’s a reason fifth graders like a good fart joke. Their brains are still developing. Children literally lack in the ability to rationally deliberate, as the prefrontal cortex, the seat of consciousness and thinking, is not fully developed until about 25 years of age. The problem is, even the smartest adult can default to base level feelings and instincts when their attention is lost, even if the stakes are incredibly high. It’s no longer a matter of fun and games.
The other day I was driving down the road obeying the 45-mile-an-hour speed limit. Out of nowhere a woman driving a large black Land Rover SUV drove straight through a red light with her infant child strapped in a booster seat behind her. I came to a screeching halt, as did another motorist traveling in the opposite direction. The woman in the SUV looked up in surprise from her smartphone, hit the brakes and came to a hard stop in the middle of the intersection a mere feet away from both our vehicles. Rather than apologizing for her mental lapse she became indignant, adding insult to near injury, cursing at us and pointing at her now crying baby. She pounded her fist on the dashboard like a petulant child and sped off, unwilling to recognize the fact that she almost caused a horrible accident. The other motorist and I were left there flummoxed and speechless. Her really dumb series of decisions to pay attention to her phone, run the red light, and speed away from the scene of a near accident could have cost lives.
This unfortunate incident might offer a helpful metaphor. When we don’t pay attention to the environment and the important issues surrounding our lives, we put everyone around us and ourselves in peril.
Why is all of this nonsense happening!
1. When our mind is overloaded with information we lose the capacity to critically filter information from the environment. We default to our feelings over facts and can miss out on what is most important, like the light being red. This helps explain the knee jerk spread of misinformation without fact checking that runs rampant online. Rational thought is a very small portion of what our brain does. And when we’re focused on irrelevant information, it literally displaces our ability to reason.
2. The mind is lazy. Rational thought is hard. Emotions are effortless. Many of us can remember Ben Carson hilariously flubbing the entrance into the GOP debates, but relatively few of us are aware of his stance on the issues.
3. Humor and emotions are contagious and non-conscious. The Christie Kreme doughnut meme spreads way faster than his points of view. These cultural units of information spread automatically without intention through non-conscious emotions. The ideas that spread are often those that we don’t have to think about. Despite the fact, that what is often best for all us is to think things through.
4. Strong emotions disengage logic. We often think of rational thought and feelings as somehow separate but both systems work in tandem. How we feel influences how we think and vice versa. But when we are in a highly aroused emotional state we become overwhelmed and lose access to logical checkpoints. This, for example, is at the roots of road rage or crimes of passion.
So if you really want to decide which presidential candidate is best, think search over social, do your homework and pay attention to the issues not just the Twitter feeds. It’s tempting and even fun to jump on the mud slinging bandwagon. But what’s best for all of us and America is a more thoughtful, educated mature voting public. If we all work harder at it, we shall overcomb! Er…I mean overcome!
If you’d like to learn more about how emotions start movements check out the following: