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NEWSLETTER ARTICLE

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”- Herbert Simon

Jonah Lehrer, in his book “How We Decide” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2009), uses the above quote in a section on how we can think too much in making a decision. He cites (among others) an MIT study in which two groups are each given a portfolio of stock investments to manage. One group only had access how the stock prices changed, while the other had steady stream of financial information, including the Wall Street Journal and access to experts. As you likely have guessed by now, the group with the limited information out-performed the information-heavy group. The author gives numerous examples of where excess information can lead an individual astray.

The book is a well written summary of recent research in decision theory and addresses how different parts of the brain come together in decision making, including the rational and emotional sides of our psyche. Numerous real-world examples are given on decisions made under time stress, and how our brain aided or hindered that decision process. The author uses the examples of the impact of excess information as a warning about becoming overly enamored with rationality.

The myth that more data will improve decision making is intuitively appealing and therefore difficult to dispel. We see the impact in even more alarms to help the operator respond to process upsets. We see the desire to display data that previously would not have been brought into the control room. We see it in large monitors crammed with variables that will help the operator detect an abnormal situation. We see this in attempts to create dashboards for everyone.

Copyright 2011 Beville Engineering, Inc.

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