When Less Information Is More

Amongst those interested in rationality, there are some who believe that more information is always better.  The reason I suspect they hold this belief is because they think that it is within our epistemic powers to fully understand the universe, if only we can collect and analyze all of the information that describes it.  This belief, however, is a dangerous one.

I happen to agree with J.B.S. Haldane who wrote the following: “My suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” [my emphasis]  As with many things in life, I believe that more information is sometimes better, but more is certainly not always better.

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It has been in vogue for quite some time now to write books about the myriad cognitive errors that we humans are prone to making.  To readers of this blog, it’s no surprise to learn that we are indeed Predictably Irrational.  However, the very same psychological processes, intuitions, and gut feelings that lead us astray often times help us navigate the world and make good decisions despite all the complexity.

It turns out that evolution may not care about rationality as much as some philosophers do.  In other words, rationality may aid our survival, but it obviously isn’t necessary to be entirely rational in order to survive.  The economist in me can’t help but think that the evolutionary costs of hyper-rationality may simply outweigh the benefits.

Anyway, I recently read Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Gut Feelings, which was excellent and very accessible.  In my opinion Gigerenzer explains why Nassim Taleb’s aphorism — “To bankrupt a fool, give him information” — contains not only a half-truth, but one-and-a-half truths.  The secret to good to decision making, argues Gigerenzer, is not to collect as much information as possible, but to discard most of it and trust your intuitions when appropriate.  We humans have evolved to use rules of thumb (scientifically referred to as “heuristics”) that help us cope with the subjectivity that is endemic to the human experience — at least Mother Nature didn’t entirely throw us to the wolves.

It’s interesting to note that Gigerenzer’s research was at the foundation of Malcolm Gladwell’s blockbuster book called Blinkwhich also waxed lyrical about the beauty of human intuition.  When I start to think about thinking and intution, I can’t help but conclude that the wise person knows when to trust their gut feelings without having to justify this trust to others.  However, the wise person also knows when these subconscious processes can lead them astray.  At its best, the human mind is a fickle thing.

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