How the Information Age Makes It Harder to Make Informed Choices About Risk (or Anything Else)
Just because there is more information available doesn't ensure that we make more informed choices. The modern media provide information in ways that play right into the brain's instinct to do as little work as possible, including the work of getting that information, and thinking carefully about it.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
What a fantastic time we live in. Information has never been more available. The opportunity to learn has never been greater. But against all the obvious benefits of greater knowledge, a danger lurks in the modern democratization of information. The Internet Age has made more knowledge more available in ways that play right into our cognitive instincts to learn, and think, less. The enormous wealth of information that is the World Wide Web feeds us facts in ways that dumb us down as much as they smarten us up.
Here’s the problem. The human brain is lazy. It takes effort to “pay” attention, to concentrate and stay focused, to thoroughly think things through, to keep an open mind about ideas or issues about which we’ve already formed an opinion. The brain prefers to not work any harder than it has to. This lazy brain is why most of you probably won’t read to the end of this essay.
No offense taken. You can’t help it. Back when the pre-human brain was evolving, our ancestors weren’t sure when the next meal might come. Calorie counting was a matter of survival. And the brain is a calorie hog. The modern human brain, three pounds or so of your total weight, uses as much as 20% of what a resting body burns in a day…more when we are called upon to ‘pay’ attention. (Still paying attention?)
So we evolved all sorts of mental shortcuts to help us make sense of the world without thinking about things any harder than we had to…to minimize the calories we’d have to ‘pay’ to make our way through the day. These shortcuts – heuristics and biases in the nomenclature of Daniel Kahneman and others – are fine for making simple quick judgments about most things that cross our radar screens. But when it comes to carefully thinking things through, keeping an open mind, NOT jumping to conclusions and then comfortably staying with them…we can, but the brain automatically prefers to avoid that extra effort if it isn’t absolutely necessary.
Now consider how we get so much of our information in this modern media age; in short little pieces, tweets and texts and brief news reports that don’t tell us nearly all of what we need to know to be fully informed. Take some stories about risk for example. Most don’t include anything about the dose of the hazardous chemical that it would take to do you harm, or which subpopulations are more at risk and which groups of people (people like you?) aren’t at risk at all. Kind of important details, don’t you think? But then, we don’t think. We take what the infoworld feeds us and move on.
Or consider how the democratization of information has given anybody with two cents to offer a global megaphone. Fine, you might say. Democratic, we might all cheer. The more voices, the richer the discourse. Except it’s much easier for the brain to go with what it already believes than keep an open mind and think carefully about new opinions or positions or ideas. The internet allows us to seek confirmation more than information far more readily than ever.
Or consider this; if someone in Amsterdam is injured when a public pop-up toilet ‘erupts’ out of the sidewalk and hits his moped (really!) or a woman in Connecticut is tossed off a plane because her emotional support pig gets incontinent and goes running up and down the aisle (Honest!) we can hear about it, immediately, anywhere in the world. But now let’s say we hear that a new case of Ebola has been reported in America (Gotcha! NOT really.) Inundated by a flood of little bits and pieces of information flying at us nonstop from everywhere, including from all sorts of sources that are hardly the most accurate or reliable (I don’t think Twitter went to journalism school), we instinctively grab the ones that seem to matter out of the infostream, make our quick instinctive judgments about them without stopping and thinking and getting more information…and all of a sudden a few cases of a disease have a whole country excessively worried.
Statistics suggest that at this point you are among a small minority of the people who started reading this…roughly four minutes ago. Not all that long, but if you made it this far, perhaps it was long enough to see how the fabulous Age of Information we’re living in doesn’t guarantee that we can make the most informed choices about how to keep ourselves safe. The information may be out there, but it still takes work to find it, and think about it, and that takes mental exertion that our modern media world makes it easier for our innately lazy brains to avoid.
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