Answers Crush Options

30 Apr

No matter what the technological advancements in data analytics, for the foreseeable future at least, it will still be human beings choosing what to focus on, what to ignore, how to make sense of choices and making decisions. There is a pervading bias that technology can just do it all for you, and in the absence of genuine AI, it can’t.

I believe we need to start acknowledging the limits of expertise in business, because this is what will ultimately make individuals and organisations better decision-makers. In parallel, technology should be a tool used to support our psychology, not replace it, and I’ll expand on these points for the rest of this article.

To begin, I’ll revisit the basics of human decision-making. Human decision-making is designed to make survival dominated decisions- spot a pattern, jump to a conclusion and react. This process saved our ancestors lives (often enough) but it’s essentially instinctive, and very fast, not critical. When one of our ancestors was under attack from a predator, they needed to act quickly and make a rapid decision under intense pressure; it was, and is, essentially a means of processing information rapidly.

In the modern world, most people in the west don’t encounter or anticipate such threats, but we respond to information in a similar way. We quickly look for a pattern, rationalise it, and act upon it. Human beings have a such a strong tendency toward pattern recognition and rationalisation that we build narratives to support our decisions, and these narratives then defend our choices and justify them to others. The vast amounts of information and data available today mean we are more susceptible than ever to our inherent biases; we’re under attack from information and react quickly to it.

To justify our reactions to data, we have sociologically built a biased narrative to support it- the more information you have, the better your decision. However, a recent study at Harvard University demonstrated the opposite, more information is more likely to result in a poorer quality of decision. This happens because a human being, when faced with complexity, immediately and subconsciously, attempts to build a pattern to produce an answer quickly. In dynamic environments this process also shuts out options; a conclusion narrows focus. This was something I focused on when doing research with armed police, the need for officers to delay pattern recognition, and delay the narrative, for as long as possible, in other words- maintain options.

The same holds true with big data and real-time information. When a person sees a trend (trending on twitter for example) the bias is to see it as an answer, a direction or a map, but with such a complex and dynamic ecology, the current trend can become irrelevant in seconds, and as a consequence so does your answer, direction or map. If you over commit or over invest, psychologically or materially, then you’ve eliminated options- answers crush options.

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