Do we know how to think?

Mar 07 2011

I can’t think why

After facilitating two fun-packed days on consumer psychology last week, I picked up the latest edition of Newsweek which had a lead article on the very same topic written by Sharon Begley (link below).  Sharon Begley focuses on the impact of the ‘Twitterization’ of culture, arguing that our brains are sometimes so overloaded with information that they simply freeze.  The story is backed up by neuro-imaging studies of brian activity during decision making, which show that when overwhelmed with information our conscious brains sometimes literally ‘switch off’.  More importantly, with too much information, our decisions can make less and less sense.

Barry Schwartz has also shown that our decisions can also make us less and less happy, when we are confronted by increasing numbers of choices and options. Although Barry Schwartz’s main argument is that our lives are not always improved by more choice, and P&G and others have seen the commercial advantage of simplifying choices for customers, the digital age is creating a culture of increasing information overload (or is that saturation) where we are all continually immersed in a stream of facts, opinions, updates and feeds.

Use the force

So if more information leads to objectively poorer (and less satisfying) choices, what can we do?  Our unconscious decision making may hold the ke.  Although it tends to get sidelined by our more conscious brain, our unconscious is able to tap into a wealth of information and connections, to help us find more creative solutions to life’s pressing problems (and make better decisions too).  All we need to do is to give our unconscious mind time to reflect and connect.

Every piece of new information presents us with choices: whether to pay attention or ignore and whether to use the information to support our decision making.  Faced with too much choice, we often choose not to choose and make no decision at all.  While this is not fatal at the supermarket, in other contexts this has serious consequences for businesses who can increase (yes, you read that correctly) uptake or nudge consumers to buy higher quality options by simplifying consumer choice to provide fewer more clearly differentiated varieties.

Seven is the magic number

Our brain’s have a limited capacity for new information, which is typically held in working memory before being filed away.  Our working memory can hold roughly seven pieces of information at any one time (hence the origins of the seven digit phone number), while any more information needs to be filed into our longer term memory bank, which takes effort even when the information is relevant and meaningful (even more when not).  So we need to expend conscious effort to process large amounts of information, which takes away processing power from other activities.

Thus, the constant flow of information is training us to make quick (perhaps hasty) decisions rather than considered ones, leading to more bad decisions. Our brains favour more recent information over more salient information, even when the more recent data is irrelevant, and we are quickly fooled by the immediacy and quantity of data, mistaking it for quality of insight.  This is especially true for creativity which needs background processing and time to take ‘creative’ leaps and make connections across different information.

Learning to switch off

Our unconscious mind can help us make better decisions as long as we give it time to think.  Deal with information from email, twitter, facebook (and even phone) in batches to give yourself time to focus on specific tasks, and think without distraction.

Sharon Begley’s article is a great introduction to some of the latest discoveries in psychology.  Over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of articles based around the 12 topics included in Tapestry Works’ “Understanding the Mind of the Consumer” workshop, which will give a complete picture of how our brains and minds work and what it means for marketing and research, so watch out more tips on getting the most from your brain!  If you would like to learn more about the topics, book a place at our Singapore workshop on 4-5 May 2011 here.


‘I can’t think’ in Newsweek, March 7 2011

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz (2005)

No responses yet

Leave a Reply