Jack Uldrich
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Unlearning Information

Posted in Creativity

Unlearning information. It's sounds paradoxical, right? After all, who in their right mind, would Toomuchinformation want less information? Well, you might if you want to succeed in the future.

Consider this quote which I came across in Jonah Lerner's informative new book, "How We Decide":

"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

It is counter-intuitive but often having access to too much information can lead people to make worse decisions.

For example, in a classic study, one group of MIT graduate students were given access to a steady stream of financial information — CNBC, Barron's, The Wall Street Journal, etc — while a second group was only given information on the changing price of a stock.

Given this disparity which group do you think did a better job in selecting stocks? Most people would assume the first group. After all isn't this why people read the Wall Street Journal and watch the analysts on CNBC? Well, you would be wrong. The second group — the group with less information — performed better.

Various versions of this experiment have been conducted with other groups, including college counselors who were asked to predict the future success of different students. One group was provided high school transcripts, SAT/ACT test scores, application essays and were even allowed personal interviews with the students. The second group was only given access to transcripts and SAT scores.

Again, the group with less information performed better. One big reason why this occurs is because when people are inundated with too much information they tend to think of all information as being equal. In the process, they lose track of what information is really important. More problematic is the idea that with more information people become increasingly confident of bad decisions!

The bottom line is not just as Jonah Lerner says that "Knowledge has diminishing returns," but rather as Nassim Taleb wrote in the Black Swan that "Additional knowledge of the minutiae of daily business can be useless, even toxic."

So there you go. De-toxify your system. Unlearn. Put down the newspapers and blogs; stop watching TV news programs; and quit following everyone on Twitter — you'll make better decisions because of it.

2 thoughts on “Unlearning Information”

  1. Michael J says:

    Nice point. Well said. I’m really enjoying your focus on unlearning. I look forward to searching your archives about what you have to say about K -12 education.
    It’s the classic signal v noise problem, as in any communication ecology.
    I seem to remember Richard Saul Worman in a book about Information Overload written some years ago, in which he suggested a strict information diet. Then there is Warren Buffets suggestion about investing. Rule 1. Stop reading the business press.
    These days I’m looking at it as communication pollution. As in any case of pollution over the long run it’s unsustainable.

  2. Jack Uldrich says:

    I like the idea of an “information diet.” As with a regular diet, moderation and quality are the keys to a healthy and long life.

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