As Goldilocks taught us, there is usually a point that is the right amount of something; the right size, the right softness, or the right speed. The Information Sweet Spot is just the right amount of information.
In our 21st Century hyper-information age, getting the optimum amount of information is critical for success. It is easy to get too little information or too much information. The problem with too much information is you have to spend time filtering out the extraneous, irrelevant, superfluous, and inappropriate information. The problem with too little information and you miss relevant details.
There are 5 Steps everyone should take in every situation to optimize their chances of getting just the right amount of information.
- Set Clear and Measurable “Goals” – The more you and all concerned understand and agreed to the clear and measurable goals the more you can get the best information.
- Understand everyone’s “Intent” – Everyone uses Conformation Bias, Selective Perception, and Motivated Reasoning. You need to compensate for these to ensure the best information.
- Understand and compensate for “Noise” – You need to understand where noise can affect information and adjust for it.
- Determine the “Relevance” of the information – You need to look at every bit of information and determine how relevant it is to achieve your goals.
- Pay Attention to the “Feedback” – You need to constantly adjust your efforts based on the feedback you are getting. You need to seek out feedback and pay close attention to it.
Information Sweet Spot
For every decision there is the right amount of information to make the best decision. Not too much and not too little. I call the point at which information is just right, the “Information Sweet Spot.” The Information Sweet Spot is the point where the amount and type of information is optimal for that specific situation.
What’s Actionable about this is that your goal should be to find the information sweet spot for every decision you make.
Good Information is the Foundation of Good Decision Making
Every decision is built on a foundation of information. And just as you need good foundations to build good buildings, you need good information to make good decisions.
If the goal is to make the best decisions (and I think it should be) then what’s actionable must be to get the best information possible, each and every time you make a decision.
Better decisions come from having better information. And better information comes from better communication.
Honest Self Evaluation
When it comes to getting information, people tend to be somewhere between two ends of a continuum. At one end of the continuum are people that go through life accepting information they get as it is. They don’t challenge the information presented to them. They watch the news, read a report, or hear an analysis and accept the information as is. On the other end of the spectrum are people that treat all information as suspect. They question, they review, they double check, they experiment, and they do research. They question everything.
Clearly there must be a balance between accepting everything and questioning everything. But, also clearly that exact balance point changes for every situation.
Of the two kinds of people, I personally tend to be one of those that questions everything. I start from a premise that all information can be wrong. So I’m constantly verifying it. Here is an example. Let’s say my goal is to do some spring planting. One piece of information that’s important to me is the weather. I watch the Weather Channel and see they are predicting rain. That piece of information is very valuable because if it snows I can’t work in the yard. So I check the Internet and see what the Internet says. I might even watch the local news to see what they say. I’m going to double, triple, or quadruple check the weather. Because I know the weather can change and the weather forecasters can be wrong, And, I’m going to watch it often to see if it changes.
I always verify information. The more important the decision, the more I verify it.
Here’s an actual example of how I apply this need for verification. Annette and I were planning a trip to Europe to meet Jillian who was studying there. It was important we sit together on the flight home. Because I know that the longer I wait to get our seats assigned the harder it would be to get to sit together, so I arranged for the seats 90 days ahead. Now, here is the point to this story as it relates to verifying information. I’ve experienced situations where the airline changes my seat. I did not want that to happen, so every couple of weeks I went online to verify we are still sitting together. I even called the airline periodically to check. You see the point? It was critical we sit together, but I know that airlines can change planes, which forces a change in seats. What I didn’t want to happen is to get to the airport and find out we are not sitting together and having no options. By verifying the information regularly, I could get a jump on any problems that could have come up.
Information is the Reduction of Uncertainty
Let’s say you’re trying to decide to take an umbrella and/or a rain poncho to the football game. It’s an easy decision if you know with 100% certainty if it is going to rain or not. The information of whether it will rain reduces your uncertainty. However, someone telling you that the speed of light is 186K miles a second does not in any way reduce your uncertainty about taking a rain coat to the game. While it’s true that the speed of light is 186K miles a second, it doesn’t help you decide to prepare for rain at the football game. If you were trying to reduce your uncertainty about taking a rain coat to the game or not, you’d be much better off turning on the weather channel, rather than the soap opera channel. You would seek out information that would reduce your uncertainty about if it is going to rain or not.
This is why focusing on the goal is so important. If the goal is to decide to take a rain coat or not, then you should focus only on the information about the potential for rain and filter out all other non actionable information.
Not all Information is Equal
Not all information is equal. Some information is correct and useful, while other information is neither correct nor useful. Those that make the best decisions are able to focus on the correct and useful information and filter out the incorrect and useless information.
My decision to get out of bed is based on knowing the correct time. My decision to get gas in the car is built on the belief the gas gauge is accurate.
If the information you use to make these decisions is wrong, inaccurate, or misinterpreted, then your decisions will be wrong, off the mark, or ineffective. If the clock stopped working in the middle of the night, it could be much later than you think and you could stay in bed longer than you wanted. If the gas gauge was not accurate, you could run out of gas. And, if the things learned about a future spouse while dating was not accurate, the marriage could be terrible.
The fundamental key to making good decisions is to get the best information we can.
The better the information the better the decision.
A Model for Getting Good Information
To begin with, let me start with an analogy to keep in mind when thinking about getting good information. When you think about decision making you should think of an assembly line, where the end product is the decision, the individual parts going into the end product – the decision – are the bits of information, and the conveyer belt is communication.
When building a product, a higher quality product is the result of higher quality parts and the most efficient system to deliver the right parts at the right time to the right people. When making a decision, a higher quality decision is the result of higher quality information and an efficient system to deliver the higher quality information to the right people at the best possible time.
In a physical assembly line there are all kinds of obstacles that could prevent getting the right parts to the right place at the right time. A truck could break down, or get lost. A clerk could mistakenly pull the wrong parts. The parts manufacturer could deliver the parts to the wrong assembly line. Or the person responsible to assemble the particular part may not know how to do it. It’s so important to get the right parts to the right place at the right time that a whole area of expertise has emerged; it’s called “Logistics.”
Logistics is to the world of physical things as communication is to the world of decision making. Communication is the logistics of human interaction.
It is important to understand that we don’t process information as much as we process meaning. We need to keep the end goal in mind because that is what others are going to see. People see the finished cake; they don’t see everything that went into the cake to make it.
You too, as decision maker, must keep an eye on the finished decision. Good cooks know that the quality of the end product is based on the quality of the ingredients. As a result they pay close attention to how the cake is made. They pay attention to the freshness of the ingredients and the way the ingredients work together, the proportions of each ingredient, and the tools they use.
So too, good decisions makers understand the quality of the decision is based on the quality of the individual pieces of information used to make the decision and how all the pieces fit together.
The point is you need to pay attention to the end product as well as the things that make up the end product.
To consistently get to the Information Sweet Spot, you will need a firm grasp on the reasons getting good information is so difficult. You need to understand the obstacles to getting good information so you can avoid them or overcome them. To do this, first I’ll spend time helping you understand the specifics of what information is from a foundational standpoint to help you understand how to maximize the good information you need to make good decisions. Second, I’ll spend a lot of time looking at the biological, cognitive, technological, socio-cultural, and other factors you need to understand to get good information.
Before I offer my specific suggestions on the skills you should sharpen to overcome the obstacles to getting good information, I need to explain the importance of setting a “value” to information and I need to offer some ways on how to set that value.
Based on everything I said up to this point, what I’m about to say should come as no surprise; Information should be valued by how much it will change your behavior. And as I’ve said a number of times before, and will probably say a few more times, how much behavior change some piece of information causes is the measure of how actionable that piece of information is.
I value a watch by how well it keeps time and do I need to tell time. I value a car by how well it gets me from point A to point B and how badly I need to go from point A to point B. I value the weather report by how well it prepares me for the day. In all these cases the value of the information is determined by how actionable it is.
A key point to understand is that unlike most other commodities, the value of information varies widely depending on a whole lot of independent and often times subjective, illogical, and arbitrary variables.
The Value of Information is not like most commodities. It can vary depending on a large number of seemingly arbitrary and often time extremely subjective factors.
The value of most other commodities remains fairly stable over time. When the value of those commodities does change, the change is fairly understandable and predictable. Gold is valued by how pure it is. Runners are valued by how fast they is. Gems are valued by how rare they are. Machines are valued by how well they perform the function they were designed for. Companies are valued by how much money they make.
These measures tend to remain fairly stable over time and situation. Absent a global crash, the price of gold will be pretty much the same tomorrow as it is today. The value of my car is going to be pretty much the same tomorrow as it is today. And, while cars do depreciate in value over time, and the price of gold does move up and down over time, that rate of depreciation for the car, or the rate of change for gold is fairly understandable and knowable. Other than being on a life raft in the middle of the ocean (not a very likely scenario for most people), the value of gold is set and will not vary much day to day or place to place.
Information, however, can go from no value or even a negative value to great value depending on the specific situation. If I’m going outside to watch my kids soccer, the weather report can be very valuable. If I’m home in bed with no intention of going outside, the weather report can have no value at all.
Good and Bad Information
There exists an information continuum.
At one end of the information continuum is great information that leads you to great decisions. At the other end of the information continuum is horrible information that leads you to terrible decisions.
The goal then is to place all the information you have on this continuum so you can use it wisely. You need to know what information is highly positive and what information highly negative. The value of information is determined by where it is on this continuum.
The Better you understand your goal; the better you can determine the most accurate value of the information for you!
Understanding Actionable Information
Let me start with the most important statement I can make about information; the best way to value information is to look at what it does; not what it is.
The Best Way to Value Information is to look at what it does; not what it is!
If information makes you do something that you would not normally do, than that information has value. And the more it will cause you to change your behavior the more value it has. The more it makes you change your behavior in a positive way, the more it has positive value.
I call this connection between the individual pieces of information and the ability of that information to cause a change in your behavior, “Actionable Information.” The more information is actionable the more it can cause a change in behavior.
- My boss sends me a lead to a potential customer. I call that potential customer. The sales lead was actionable. It caused me to take action.
- I looked at the paper and saw the football game was going to be on at 8 PM, I thought it was going to be at 3 PM. I told Annette we need to change our dinner plans because I wanted to be home to watch the game. The information that the game was at 8PM was actionable.
- My landscaper was going to start work on Monday, but it started to rain, so he decided not to start work. The rain was actionable for him.
- We were watching the news and they were talking about how Tilapia was being raised in polluted waters. Annette decided that she was going to stop buying tilapia. The news story was actionable. It caused Annette to take action and stop buying tilapia.
- I saw an advertisement for Red Lobster that said their “Endless Shrimp Special” was ending on Friday. I made plans to go to Red Lobster before Friday
- I came out to my car and noticed a tire was low, so I stopped and filled it up. The low tire was actionable.
- The Oil Maintenance light came on, so I brought the car in to have the oil changed.
- We started our first fire of the season and the house started to fill up with smoke because the flue was closed. The smoke in the house was actionable so I opened the flue.
- I looked at my checking account balance and saw that it was too low to cover some checks I had written. I transferred money from savings to checking.
- Post Office
- The mailman looks at my address on piece of mail and delivers it to my house.
- A thermostat turns on when the temperature gets to a certain point. The temperature is actionable to the thermostat.
- When it gets hot we sweat. Temperature is actionable to our bodies
All the above are examples are of Actionable Information. But, it is just as important to note that not all the information that is presented to us on a given day is actionable.
It also might be very helpful to understand actionable information by looking at some examples of non-actionable information.
Please note that this information could be actionable to others, it’s just some examples that are not actionable to me at a particular time.
- We got an announcement that the VP of Customer Service has changed. So what? I did not know the old VP, I don’t care about the new VP, and I have no interaction with them.
- We announced our 3rd quarter results were on target, so no changes.
- The weather report says it may snow next week. But I’m going to be traveling next week so I don’t care what the weather will be. Now if it said it was going to snow that morning that would be actionable.
- Post Office
- The mailman picks up my outgoing mail. The physical address of the person I’m sending the letter to is not actionable to the mailman. All the mailman needs to know when he picks up my mail is that it’s outgoing and needs to be put into the outgoing mail sorting bin. If the mailman that picks up my mail does the sorting then the Zip code is actionable, but the specific address is not actionable. The physical address is only actionable to the mail carrier that delivers to the end address.
- The home mortgage rate goes down. Since I’m not interested in refinancing my home, it’s not actionable.
Notice that I used the example of the weather report saying it was going to snow next week and I said that was not actionable to me. However, it may be very actionable to my landscaper that needs to schedule his crews. To my landscaper snow means snow removal and that means he will need more people. If the landscaper sees it’s going to snow next week, he better start to make sure that he can get the extra crews he’ll need. So, what is not actionable to me, may be very actionable to someone else.
Actionable Information – Will a particular piece (bit, byte, packet, or session) cause me to change my behavior.
If information causes you to change behavior then it’s actionable. If it does not then it’s not actionable.
Step 1 to Find the Information Sweet Spot – Set Measurable goals
As I’ve said before many times, the first step in any activity is to determine your goal. The better you are at understanding your goal, the better you’ll be at valuing information.
We live in an information rich environment. There is more information available than we need. So it’s critical that we filter the information and focus on what’s the most actionable. Focusing on the goal helps you know what’s important and what’s not, what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary! If your goal is to pick out what to wear for the day, the fact that Heineken uses special yeast in the brewing process, while interesting, does not help you achieve your goal of picking out what to wear, and is therefore not actionable.
If your goal is to get gas at the cheapest station on your way to work, then the fact that a gas station does or does not sell donuts is of little value. The only two pieces of information of any value are; what is the cost of the gas, and is it on the way to work.
However, if your goal is to get donuts with your gas, then whether there are donuts or not becomes valuable information. And let’s go further with this. If your goal is to get donuts then you need to know if they sell donuts. And if your goal is to get “fresh” donuts, then you need to know how fresh they are. Going further, if your goal is to get gas, at a place on the way to work, where the price is average, and that sells fresh lemon filled donuts. Now all those things have value.
To further make my point, let me go even one step further. Let’s say your goal is to get gas on the way to work, at a gas station that has good prices, that sells fresh lemon filled donuts, AND LOSE WEIGHT. Now you have just massively increased the information needed to get into the information sweet spot. Now you have to consider how do you eat a lemon filled donut and lose weight at the same time. You have to consider how many calories a lemon filled donut is. You have to consider how many calories are you going to have that day and if you are going to exercise to work off that lemon filled donut. You might even want to find out if there is such a thing as a very low calorie lemon filled donut. Or perhaps there is a diet that allows for lemon filled donuts.
When the goal was just to get gas on the way to work you only needed a couple of pieces of information. But as you expand your goal, the information needed to achieve that goal also expands.
Setting a goal in any activity is critical. Let me use another example to show you how this works in your everyday life. We were invited to a Superbowl party at our friend’s house. Annette asked me if I wanted to go. The decision then is; to go or not go to the party. The first step is to decide on the goal. One goal is to watch the Superbowl. Another goal is to be with friends. I can fulfill both goals by going to the party. So we decided to go.
Step 2 to Find the Information Sweet Spot – Understand Everyones Intent
The fundamental driver of communication is “Intent.” Everyone has an intent when they communicate.
To find the information sweet spot it is critical that you understand the intent of the sources of information.
Everyone uses Conformation Bias, Selective Perception, and Motivated Reasoning. You need to compensate for these to ensure the best information. You need to understand what others are trying to achieve in order for you to adjust the information to best fit your needs.
Step 3 to Find the Information Sweet Spot – Understand What “Noise” is and Adjust for it
Unfortunately, there are a number of environmental and biological obstacles to getting good information. The biological obstacles originate from the reality that our senses are imperfect and our brain can play tricks on us. And the environmental obstacles originate from the reality that the information we need may be unavailable, unreliable, or incomprehensible.
Of the two obstacles, the biological obstacles are the more dangerous and insidious because they’re very subtle, exceptionally hard to detect, often applied unconsciously, and even once identified, are hard to overcome.
It’s important to understand that these biological obstacles are not only in you, but in me, in your friends, family, co-workers, politicians, scientists, everyone. In fact, to a greater or lesser extent we all face the same biological obstacles to getting good information. The reality that we all share pretty much the same obstacles to getting good information is critical to understand. Since we all face the same obstacles, understanding your own obstacles will help you understand the obstacles others around you face. My thinking is that understanding these obstacles will help you develop skills to overcome not only your own obstacles, but might help you help those around you to overcome their own obstacles.
Having said all that let me summarize a bit before I go on. As with pretty much everything, I believe that the more you understand the obstacles in front of you, the better chance you have of either overcoming or avoiding them. What I’m offering here are specific ways to either overcome the information obstacles completely or to at least lessen the obstacle’s negative influences.
I want to be perfectly clear; I’ve not yet found a “magic bullet,” that will instantaneously solve all my information problems. I still make huge decision mistakes. I fall back on the saying that if it were easy everyone would do it. But, while I’m the first to acknowledge that it’s unquestioningly difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome ALL the obstacles, I can tell you that it’s fairly easy to overcome some of the key obstacles to getting the best information and as a result greatly improve your decision making. Think of it like picking fruit. Sure some of the fruit is on top of the tree and hard to get, but there is always “low hanging fruit” that is fairly easy to get. In fact, some fruit is on the ground and all you have to do it pick it up. So too with overcoming information obstacles! While some obstacles may be difficult to overcome, there are many that are easy.
The term “Noise” is actually a communication term. It means any unwanted sound. But in the context I’m using here “noise” means anything that blocks, distorts, changes, or in any way interferes with getting good information.
While I’m going to talk about some specific obstacles to getting good information, an easy thing to do is to simply use the term “noise” as shorthand for anything that prevents you from getting the best information possible. You could simply say that our biological and environmental information processing systems are full of “noise.” By simply accepting that we use “noisy” systems and compensating for it, you can improve your information processing abilities. However, the problem with using the term noise that way is that it is not really actionable. It’s way too high level. We need much more detail.
The better you understand where the noise comes from, the better you will be at building systems to overcome the specific noise that’s preventing you from getting the best information.
The best example I can think of here is Noise Cancelling headphones or “White Noise Systems” in office buildings. Both of these systems reduce unwanted and distracting sounds (and remember our definition of “noise” is any unwanted sound) by figuring out what the unwanted noise is and creating “anti-noise.” Noise-Cancelling headphones use the physics of sound waves to “cancel” out the bad noise.
The point here is that if your goal is to design Noise Canceling headphones then you need to understand as much as possible about the physics of sound and the biology of hearing. The more you understand these fundamentals the better you will be at achieving your goal.
So applying this Noise Cancelling Headphone example to getting good information, my goal in this Chapter is to present you with ways to reduce the “information noise” we naturally encounter as we try to get good information.
Wouldn’t it be great if you had the best information handed to you every time you needed to make a decision? Wouldn’t it be great if there is a “The Best Information Hot Line” you could call or a “Best Information Web Site” you could go to? Well, sorry to say they don’t exist.
The reality is that to get information at all we usually have to rely on others to get the information for us. Unfortunately, however, there are huge potential obstacles to getting good information from others.
Here is a list of three of the most important obstacles we face when getting information from others:
- The information they provide could be wrong
- The information is not in a form we can use
- The information is too early or too late
The Source of the Information is wrong
As I said before, making a decision is based on knowing the information you are using is correct. However, knowing something is correct is not always easy.
We get information in two ways; we get it ourselves via direct measurement or we get if from someone else. When we get information from someone else we need to be careful because that information could be wrong.
Broadly speaking there are two categories of wrong information coming from someone else:
- The source intended to provide accurate information but did not.
- The source had no intention of providing accurate information; they intentionally lie.
The source of the information has an agenda that runs counter to your agenda When I hear a politician provide information I don’t trust them.
There is little you can do to change this situation. There is nothing you can do if the source is lying intentionally or thinks they are right, but is not. All you can do is try to understand what the motivation of the source is and react accordingly.
Perhaps the best way around this obstacle is to use the Ronald Reagan quote, “Trust, but verify.” If it is important, then you might want to double check.
The Information is not in a form we can Use
There are many decisions I have to make that I just cannot figure out the information. For example, I have to buy a big screen TV. There is plasma, LCD, 3D, and all sorts of other stuff that I just do not understand enough to make a good decision.
It’s not uncommon to get information that we just are not trained to understand. Our auto mechanic tells us about double overhead cams. Our doctor tells us about a sarcoma. Our computer geek tells us about registry errors.
There are two ways around this obstacle. First, you might want to enlist a “translator.” In this case a translator would translate the information that is in a form you cannot use into a form you can use. Or, the second way would be to learn to translate the information yourself. Which one of the two you use would depend on any number of things. For example, is this a onetime event? If it is a onetime event then a translator might be the best solution. However, if it is a recurring event than perhaps you should learn the translate it yourself, so you do not have to rely on a translator every time you get into the situation where the information you need is not in the form you can use.
Personally, I always try to learn it myself first because I love learning. But, I get so busy I often make the decision that learning to translate the information will not be the best use of my limited available time. In that case I simply hire a translator.
Here is the perfect example. Take a look at the x-ray below.
There is information there for sure. But it is in a form I cannot understand. Now, I could go to medical school and learn to read x-rays. Or I could hire a doctor to translate that information for me. Personally I find hiring a doctor is the most effective use of my time.
Now, this is very important. Let’s go back to the point about the source of the information being wrong. There is a great likelihood that the doctor translating this x-ray for me could be wrong. It happens all the time. So, using the “trust, but verify” approach, I might want to get a second opinion. Or I might want to do my own research.
When a decision is critical and I have to rely on the translator, I will often assume that the translator could make a mistake (either intentionally or unintentionally) and so I will check, double check, and triple check the translation. I’ve had situations where the translator is insulted that I would not trust them, but, I tell them I’m sorry, getting the best information is more important than hurting someone’s feelings. And, frankly, I will avoid translators that don’t want me to check their work because if they are any good, they know they are right and are not worried about anyone checking them.
The information is either too early or too late
It’s said, “timing is everything.” So to with information. Getting the information when we need it is critical. There is not much you can do for information that is too late. But we can store information that is too early.
The problem, of course, with storing information for later use is being able to retrieve it when you actually need it. Fortunately, context sensitive databases and digital libraries have greatly improved our ability to retrieve stored information.
I would love to go into a lot more detail on this subject, but I think you get the point and think we should move on.
Biological Obstacles to Getting Good Information
We have some major biological obstacles standing in our way of getting good information. Our senses are limited and, more importantly, our brain plays major tricks on us.
There are three sayings that apply here:
- “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
- Measure twice – cut once
- Trust but Verify
What these sayings tell me is that people have long recognized that we can easily be wrong in our efforts to get information and that a key skill to make sure we are not wrong is to check, verify, confirm, double check, and authenticate everything.
I heard of a guy that was getting a hip replacement. He wrote on his good hip in big letters, “WRONG HIP.” He did this because he heard of cases of doctors making mistakes and replacing the wrong hip on someone.
Here is another example. In 1999 there was a Mars explorer that crashed because one rocket scientist used feet and another rocket scientist used meters. As a result wrong calculations were entered into the guidance system. Rocket scientists often double, triple, quadruple check their calculations when programming a rocket. The risk is just too great. But they still make mistakes.
Clearly mistakes happen. Often times we can just laugh at our mistakes and move on. But sometimes, depending on the situation, an information mistake could have devastating results.
Perception and Selective Perception
We receive huge amounts of information as we move through the world. Our brain cannot possibly handle all that information effectively. So it combines, filters, and modifies the stimulus it receives into broad generalizations, stereotypes, frames of reference, and assumptions.
We are wired to match our perceptions to patterns we’ve previously established in our brains. Apparently, evolution has come to the conclusion that this is the best way to successfully move through our daily life. Apparently, among our cave dwelling ancestors, the ones that were best able to quickly match current threats and opportunities with previous experiences survived to reproduce better than those that didn’t. Apparently, it is better to think there was a tiger in the bushes and run away when there was no tiger, then to not run away when there was in fact a tiger. In other words, evolution has taught us to err on the side of caution.
But, all that filtering, stereotyping, and generalizing is a huge double edge sword. On one hand it’s great for quickly coming to conclusions. But on the other hand it’s a barrier to evaluating new situations. And, as I talked about earlier, in reality, every situation is a new situation.
I really want to talk about “Selective Perception” but before I talk about “selective” perception, I want to I want to briefly remind you of the discussion on perception we had in the last Chapter on Communication.
Encarta defines perception as, “the process of using the senses to acquire information about the surrounding environment and situation.” Remember when I talked about the senses and how the brain processes information. One of the key points I made was the senses and the brain use an electrochemical process that is subject to all kinds of errors, both intentional – as in when we put still images together to see a movie – and unintentional – as in an optical illusion.
Perception is a two-step process; reception and interruption.
- Step one, the reception step, is pretty straight forward. Our perceptual organs are stimulated by some event – light wave, sound waves, touch, taste, or smell. They then generate an electrochemical signal that is sent to the brain.
- Step two, the interpretation step, is the most intricate step. This is the brain interrupting the signals from our senses and either using those signals right away, as in a reflex movement, or storing them for future use, as you are doing reading this.
Not to sound like a broken record but this is important. Because perception relies on the electrochemical process, it is subject to the variations inherent in our biology and environment. Things like being tired, what you are eating or drinking, or smoking can all influence the specific mix of neurotransmitters. And the mix of neurotransmitters will greatly influence both the reception of stimulus but more importantly the way the brain interrupts the signals sent it.
The result of this is that no two people will perceive in the same way. And it is very likely that you will not perceive in the same way one moment to the next.
Of the two steps, the interpretation step is most likely to get in the way of getting good information. And this is where “Selective Perception” fits in.
The first brutal fact you need to understand; everyone, including you, uses “Selective Perception.”
We use Selective perception as a survival technique. Without selective perception, we would be completely overwhelmed with stimulus. Selective Perception allows us to filter out information we don’t need. However, selective perception is also quite insidious, because we will ignore things that are incongruent with our existing values and beliefs. This then prevents us from making the best decisions. Selective Perception is an obstacle because it prevents us from seeing reality. We see what we want to see, not what we should see.
We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we want them to be.
It is impossible to pay attention to everything. Our mind has figured out that if it only selects the things that important we will have a better chance of surviving. So in order to make sense of the world we categorize and filter the stimulus that we perceive. Selective Perception describes how we categorize and filter.
Now, I want you to reference back to the discussion I had in Chapter 1 about Drew Weston and his research. Remember that Weston found a biochemical cause for a resistance to change. Remember he used fMRI to study the brains of people making decisions and found that we actually get a chemical “rush” from ignoring information that’s contrary to their point of view. This process is broadly called selective perception, but it is known by other names, my favorite being, “Confirmation Bias.”
I’ll talk more about biases a bit later, but for now, the key difference between Selective Perception and other forms of bias that I want you to pay attention to, is that Selective Perception is unconscious. It happens without you even knowing about it. And, because it’s unconscious it is very difficult to overcome.
There is an old saying in business; “An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance.” This is based on the belief that perceptions are more important than the reality.
Let me offer an example I saw the other night. It was a taste test. Testers were given salads from a fast food restaurant. They were told it was from a fast food restaurant. They judged the salads as poor in quality and high in fat. Then other testers were given the same salad, but told it was from a health food store. They rated the salad high in quality and low in fat.
Another good example of Selective Perception is the game of “telephone” where one person tells a story to another and they then tell it to another and so on. It’s great fun to compare the original story with the one at the end.
There are three main ways we apply Selective Perception:
- Selective attention – Paying attention to specific stimulus
- Selective distortion – Remembering things differently than how they occurred
- Selective Recall – Only remembering the things that confirm our existing beliefs
The key is to remember that we all use Selective Perception; so don’t assume what you see is really what is.
Biased thinking is a bit different from selective perception. The concept of selective perception is it happens unconsciously, whereas the concept of biased thinking is it happens consciously.
The point here is that while it’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to prevent yourself from selective perception – you do it, I do it, everyone does it – it’s much easier to prevent yourself from biased thinking.
There are many types of bias thinking that I could go over. However, of all of them Confirmation Bias is the worst.
“Confirmation Bias” refers to the situation where you focus on “confirming” bits of information and filter-out “non-confirming” information.
Let’s say you think BMW is the best car ever made, you would tend to see only the reports that say BMW is the best care ever made. And if you saw a report that said Lexus was the best car ever made, you would either ignore it or find reasons to discredit it.
If our beliefs are based on verifiable facts and valid experiments, like the fact that water is made up of 2 parts of Hydrogen and one part water (H2O) and this is proven by an electrolis experiment, then the tendency to pay more attention to data that fits that model will not lead us too far off course. However, you need to understand that even this might be a risk. Many commonly held beliefs, based on the best information of the time, were in fact wrong. Beliefs like the earth is flat or horses always have at least one foot on the ground when they run were widely held beliefs until new information proved them wrong.
The point is that you need to make sure you understand that there is a bright line between reasonableness and closed mindedness.
But don’t just take my word for this. There have been numerous studies to confirm this. What I’m saying is that it’s a biological fact that we all tend to give more attention and credence to information that supports our beliefs. We all do it. We all do it all the time. You do it. I do it. Everyone does it. In essence we are “addicted” to our own beliefs in the same way a heroin addict is addicted to heroin.
Confirmation Bias is not the only form of biases we use. Here is a short list I found of some other biases.
- Anchoring – Giving disproportionate weight to the first information you receive.
- Status quo – Favoring alternatives that perpetuate the existing situation
- Sunk Costs – Making choices in a way that justifies past, flawed choices
- Confirming evidence – Seeking information that supports your existing point of view
- Framing – Structuring the situation in ways that favor one solution over another
- Estimating and forecasting – Being overly influenced by vivid memories when estimating
- Overconfidence – Not being honest about our abilities
- Over Cautiousness – Too much prudence or too much fear of failure
- Recallability – The risk of being influenced by what is top of mind or what is easily recalled.
What is actionable here is that you need to understand that in order to get good information you need to overcome the obstacle of only looking at information that confirms your existing beliefs, because your existing beliefs can be wrong.
Skills Required to Overcome the Obstacles to Getting Good Information
What I present here is intended to be simply an overview of some of the key skills required. I am preparing another book with more in-depth explanations and exercises that will help you hone these skills.
Skill #1 – Measure Twice – Cut Once. Check, verify, recheck, confirm.
There is an old saying in carpentry; Measure twice – Cut once. When making any decision your first step is to gather information. But, gathering information is only half the battle. The other half is to gather useful and accurate information.
When you’re in bed in the morning and your decision to get up is in front of you, your first step is to gather information. You need to look at a clock and see what time it is. You need to think about what you have to do for the day. When deciding what to wear you need to gather information like what you plan to do today & what you have that’s clean.
Often times gathering information is very easy. If Iwanted to go to a movie I would either, drive by the theater to see the times, check the Internet, or look in the paper. Let’s say I wanted to know how much money I had to spend on food. I’d probably look in my check book, or go online to check my bank account, or I’d just know how much you have because I just balanced my checkbook.
Let’s say I want to decide what to order at a restaurant. Gathering information is easy, I’d simply look at the menu. Menus are designed to provide all the information I might need to choose something. But, perhaps I still have some question so I’d ask the waiter. I might want to know if the fish is fresh or if I could substitute the sweet potato for the baked potato. In all those cases, gathering information was easy.
Unfortunately, there are many times when gathering the best information is not easy. And, also unfortunately, though fairly understandably, often, the times that gathering the best information is not easy are also the times you need it the most. Let’s say you hear a rattle in the car. You need to know what’s causing the rattle, how much will it cost to fix, and where’s the best place to get it fixed. All those questions are hard to answer. You might not know what the rattle is. And even if you did, you need to find a mechanic you can trust.
There are two broad ways to you gather information; you personally gather all of it yourself or someone else gathers some of it and gives it to you. Clearly you have much more control over the information you personally gather. But in our complex world you will rarely find a situation where you can gather all the information you need to make a decision. In today’s world we almost always rely on others to provide some, if not all, the information we need.
There is some information we get from others that we take for granted is accurate, like the time a plane, train, or bus is scheduled to leave and arrive. Or the ingredients in a product. Or a price of a stock listed in the paper. That’s not to say that any of these things are always right and are never wrong. It’s up to you to determine what is the consequence of them being wrong. If the consequence is significant, then it is imperative that you get second and third opinions.
Again, “trust but verify.”
But this is not to say that just because someone else gathers it, it’s better or worse than if you gather it. In fact, sometimes you can get better information from someone else than you could get yourself. The doctor is a great example. I can take my own blood pressure, but is it probably better when the doctor gathers that information.
In the section on learning I said honesty was critical, well, honesty is critical here too. Honestly evaluating your own skill at gathering information yourself is essential to getting the best information. You need to know when it’s best to gather information yourself and when it’s best to have someone help.
Let me use some examples;
- Example 1 – Medical information. In order to stay healthy we need to gather medical information. When you go to the Doctor she wants to know our blood pressure, temperature, blood chemistry and much more stuff doctors want to know.
- Example 2 – Fixing a rattle in your car. Cars are very completed and require expertise to know what a rattle is and how to fix it.
I see a difference between basic skills, like reading and listening and advanced skills like computer programming and reading an x-ray. Everyone should know how to read and listen. But how well you can read and listen sets apart those that are just good at information gathering and those that are the best at it.
Skills #2 – Apply A Structured Approach to Information
Let me go back to the assembly line analogy I used earlier. If you remember I said that in decision making, the end product is the decision, the individual parts are the pieces of information, and the conveyer belt is communication. And I said the goal is to get the best information to the right people at the right time. Now I want to put it all together and talk about the skills you need to get the best information to the right people at the right time. I also want to talk the obstacles that might be in your way and how to overcome those obstacles.
Let’s start with listing the 4 important skills you need to pay attention to in order to get the best information:
- Information Gathering
- Information Storage and Retrieval
- Information transmission – Communication
- Information Analysis – Putting everything together to come up with what’s actionable
Step 4 to Find the Information Sweet Spot – Determine What is Relevant
If you want to find the Information Sweet Spot, you need to determine the relevance of the information.
If the goal is to get gas and donuts, then information about the price of gold is not relevant. If the goal is to make a sale, then who is buying, what they want, what you have to sell is relevant. If the goal is to do your spring planting then the weather, how to plant, what plants you need, and what fertilizer you need is relevant.
The same piece of information may be relevant to achieve one goal but not to achieve another goal. Knowing the calories of donuts may be good information to know if you want to buy a donut, but it will not help you determine when the best time to plant your lawn is.
The more you can identify the relevance of the information the more likely you can find the Information Sweet Spot.
If the decision is technical, like what kind of computer to buy, then you need technical information. If the decision is financial, like where to invest your money, then you need financial information. If the decision is medical, like how do you lose weight, then you need medical information.
Depending on the situation you may gather all the information yourself or you may rely on experts to help you. In business we call them Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Your doctor and dentist are SMEs. Your Tax accountant is a SME. Your auto mechanic is a SME.
Step 5 to Find the Information Sweet Spot – Pay Attention to Feedback
When you drive a car you are constantly paying attention to feedback. The same is true for finding the Information Sweet Spot.
You need to constantly adjust your actions based no the feed back to get where you want to go.