Acquiring information

I like to browse health and fitness blogs in my free time, and one question I keep seeing people ask is – “can I drink alcohol after a workout?” About 99% of the time, the blog author cites some anecdote about how drinking isn’t good for your health, but he’s heard that drinking a glass of wine a day is actually good for your health, so concludes that drinking in moderation is ok.

TERRIBLE. It bothers me every time I read this. There has never been a study performed comparing the long term health effects of drinking on people. What people do to draw this conclusion is look at census data and make the observation that people who drink more tend to have longer lifespans. But even a kindergardener knows that CORRELATION DOES NOT MEAN CAUSATION. Lots of factors can cause this result. For example: possibility #1 – only healthy people drink. If you have some chronic illness like diabetes, drinking a bottle of wine probably isn’t very high on your to-do list. This presents a huge selection bias in your sample since you have a predisposition of healthy people in your regular drinkers category. Or possibility #2 – drinking is expensive, so it’s generally a past-time of affluent people, and affluent people can afford better healthcare, and it’s better healthcare that causes longer lifespans.

This got me reflecting over the idea that a lot of the information we receive from other people is inaccurate. So I did some research. Fortunately there is a whole wealth of information related to management decision making at the business school.

What factors bias the information we receive?

When it comes to processing information, there seems to be two main issues:

  1. Acquiring information – what do we notice and remember about others?
  2. Sharing information – how does the process of communication alter the information we share?

Acquiring Information

When people acquire information, their attention is limited. Therefore certain biases will influence how information captures attention. Two dominant biases that all people carry around are:

  • Negativity dominance: Negative information captures attention more than positive attention. Example, when someone tells a story, people usually remember the bad highlights more than the good ones. Just think back to a recent news article you read. How many details do you remember about something bad that happened? How many details do you remember about something good that happened?
  • Visual perspective – people remember events differently based on their role in a situation. The next time you’re interacting in a meeting, think of yourself as an actor on stage. You (actor) look out and see the entire situation. However others (audience) only see you and weigh more heavily traits such as personality as they evaluate your performance.

As you put these two biases together, you begin to create a story that is often heard when people complain about work. If your friend is in management, then he/she plays the observer role and likely complains that people are incompetent. This is because the observer has a tendency to focus on negative events, and puts greater weight on employee disposition rather than situational facts. The actor (employee) focuses on the situation and complains in the same series of events from a different perspective, with a common plight being something along the lines of “XYZ factor was the reason we didn’t hit the goal” or “my job is impossible.”

Sharing Information

What about sharing information? I recently read the book “Made to Stick” for a class, which I think presents an excellent framework for sharing information that will help make your information more impactful to your audience. The framework acronym is SUCCESs

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credible
  • Emotions
  • Stories

I highly recommend reading the book for a more in-dept treatise on this subject. The author is entertaining and it’s a quick read.

Overcoming information bias

What can you conclude from all this, and what can you do to overcome information bias at work and in life? (1) Question everything, including your own assumptions. As shown here, people have a tendency to fixate on negative bits of information and easily develop baseless assumptions. (2) Overcome your confirmation bias by seeking different information sources. As Wall Street Traders are often warned – “don’t confuse brains with a bull market.” This describes how stock traders have a tendency to attribute superior portfolio returns to individual stock picking performance, when in reality it had nothing to do with their ability and everything to do with macroeconomic conditions. Consider if you are missing information about something that has happened. The big problem with information bias is that you often don’t know what you don’t know, and so the most overconfident people are those who are wrong.

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