More information won’t always lead to a better choice

David Stewart, Flickr

Sometimes less really is more. A thought-provoking new piece of research has concluded that too much knowledge can actually lead to a worse decision.

We live in a time of unlimited information. All it takes is a few swipes of our fingers and we can access any piece of information or data we desire. It’s easy to forget just how good we have it. Fifty years ago, if you needed a specific piece of obscure information you would actually have to find and read through an encyclopedia – a notion that is entirely foreign to an entire generation of adults.

Nowadays, when faced with a decision, whether it be as small as where to grab lunch, or as important as our next career path, we all tend to seek out as much information as possible. And, why wouldn’t we? All of that knowledge is just a few clicks away, and more information leads to better informed and ultimately just plain better decisions. At least, that’s what most assume.

Researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey are challenging the idea that more information is always beneficial. According to their findings, a wealth of new information can actually hurt more than it helps if one doesn’t accurately understand it all and effectively incorporate that new information into their prior knowledge base. 

New information and data can sometimes contradict our previous understandings of a topic. When this happens, it interferes with how we interpret the new information and how it fits in with our world view. Basically, sometimes new information just ends up confusing us more than anything else.

The research team focused specifically on how artificial intelligence and machine learning are revolutionizing both the healthcare and finance industries. Thanks to these technologies, patients and financial clients are being presented with more pertinent information than ever. However, in many of the examined scenarios, all that new data is only muddying the waters when it comes time for the patient or client to make a final decision.

“Being accurate is not enough for information to be useful,” comments study leader Samantha Kleinberg, associate professor of computer science at Stevens, in a press release. “It’s assumed that AI and machine learning will uncover great information, we’ll give it to people and they’ll make good decisions. However, the basic point of the paper is that there is a step missing: we need to help people build upon what they already know and understand how they will use the new information.”

In all, 4,000 participants were asked a series of questions on various subjects. Some participants were given reasonable scenarios that everyone knows at least a little about, such as financial issues or health / medical advice, while others were presented with nonsensical situations that they couldn’t possibly know about. For example, how to motivate a group of mind-reading aliens. 

Across both experimental groups, the participants were given some additional information to help point them towards the right solutions. This way, the researchers were able to measure if people made the correct choice more often when incorporating prior knowledge with new data (finance / health questions) or just by simply going off of new information with no preconceived beliefs (aliens).

Participants faced with alien questions actually performed quite well on the tests. The study’s authors say this is because they had no prior knowledge of aliens to complicate their decision-making process. 

“People are just focusing on what’s in the problem,” Kleinberg notes. “They are not adding in all this extra stuff.”

On the other hand, even though the second group should have had no problem answering simple finance or health questions, they made worse decisions. They were allowing their prior knowledge to cloud their judgment. Take a question about diabetes for example, participants without diabetes actually performed better than people in the same group that were legitimate diabetes patients.

“In situations where people do not have background knowledge, they become more confident with the new information and make better decisions,” Kleinberg explains. “So there’s a big difference in how we interpret the information we are given and how it affects our decision making when it relates to things we already know vs. when it’s in a new or unfamiliar setting.”

New information, obviously, isn’t intrinsically a bad thing. It’s just that, in today’s world of non-stop new information and headlines, too much information can be just as debilitating as too little. When it comes to financial or medical advice, professionals in these fields should do their best to tailor fit the information they provide based on each unique individual. Simply providing endless facts and statistics rarely ever simplifies a decision-making process.

The full study can be found here, published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.