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Inundated with information

August 18, 2009
by Rob Swindell
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In the Afterword, author Malcolm Gladwell notes a common theme in his national bestseller, Blink:

“We live in a world saturated with information. We have virtually unlimited amounts of information at our fingertips at all times, and we’re well versed in arguments about the dangers of not knowing enough and not doing our homework. But I have sensed enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information. We have come to confuse information with understanding.”

Blink is interesting in that it makes precisely this point. Decision-makers sometimes become paralyzed when decisions focus on every possible outcome, every legal consequence and a dedication to being able to defend their decision. This is true, even in the face of the obvious—when the “right” decision is inherent or known.

In one example, he details the imprecision by which emergency room physicians could diagnosis a heart attack. Because of liability, and the sheer number of medical factors, physicians were often cautious in their diagnosis—resulting in expensive treatment for patients that were not having a heart attack. Gladwell then compares this to an algorithm created by Lee Goldman that uses a decision-tree based on only three factors that easily out-performed the physicians that had access to all of the medical and patient information.

Although the book is subtitled, “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” neither Gladwell nor myself is suggesting that decision-makers make rush decisions based entirely on a “gut-feeling.” Rather, the idea is that there is a point of diminishing return and confusion that needs to balanced with understanding the heart of the problem. Sometimes less is more; sometimes a few simple answers are better than every other possible explanation.

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Rob Swindell

Rob Swindell

@robswindell

www.robswindell.com

Rob Swindell is the Associate Director of the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services (ADAS) Board...