Thanks for the offer. But let’s just have some chocolate cake and call it a day.
More about this cake business later, but first, there’s this: Newsweek is the latest to hop aboard the streetcar named Can’t Decide — our own trek for the past two years — with its current cover story on the “twitterization” of our culture, or why we can’t think.
The story references research by Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, who found that information overload mucks with our ability to make decisions — and control our emotions:
“With too much information, ” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”
So much for the ideal of making well-informed decisions. For earlier generations, that meant simply the due diligence of looking things up in a reference book. Today, with Twitter and Facebook and countless apps fed into our smart phones, the flow of facts and opinion never stops. That can be a good thing, as when information empowers workers and consumers, not to mention whistle-blowers and revolutionaries. You can find out a used car’s accident history, a doctor’s malpractice record, a restaurant’s health-inspection results. Yet research like Dimoka’s is showing that a surfeit of information is changing the way we think, not always for the better. Maybe you consulted scores of travel websites to pick a vacation spot—only to be so overwhelmed with information that you opted for a staycation. Maybe you were this close to choosing a college, when suddenly older friends swamped your inbox with all the reasons to go somewhere else—which made you completely forget why you’d chosen the other school. Maybe you had the Date From Hell after being so inundated with information on “matches” that you chose at random. If so, then you are a victim of info-paralysis.
We devoted a whole chapter in our book to the science of decision making (and several posts, like this one, from over a year ago) Like Newsweek, we found that too many options sends the brain into overdrive, at which point it often says screw it and just goes off to bed. Also like Newsweek, we found that the constant beep and buzz of the electronica that has become a part of our every waking moment just adds to the chaos, making it close to impossible for us to make a decision — or be happy with it when we do.
A lot revolves around a pivotal 1950′s study, cleverly titled “Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, that found that your rational brain can only hold about seven different things in working memory at any one time. More than that, and your head starts spinning. Ms. Rational Brain is likely to say “I quit” — and cede control to the emotional brain.
If you’re thinking this can’t end well, you’d be right. This is where the chocolate cake comes in.
Several decades after that pivotal study, a Stanford marketing professor named Baba Shiv tested the theory with a bunch of hungry college students. He had one group memorize two-digits — and the other group, seven. Afterward, they were offered their choice of reward — fruit salad or gooey chocolate cake — and guess what happened? The crew that was overloaded with info overwhelmingly chose cake. The two-digit folks? Fruit salad, please.
You can guess which group might have had some regrets a little later. Which brings us to our point. When you are overloaded with information — or options — decision making becomes a labyrinth of twists and turns that rarely has a happy ending. We second-guess. We regret. We start jonesing for the greener grass. Add the constant distractions of Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and [insert Next Big Thing here] and it’s no wonder we can’t decide what to have for dinner, much less what to do with our lives.
All of which is that much worse for women when it comes to what-do-I-do-now decisions. Why? Generational, sister. Suddenly we’re faced with more options than our mothers or grandmothers ever thought possible, and we’re running the road without a map. Or role models, either. We can be doctors. We can be lawyers. We can run off to join the circus. We can stay home to raise kids. We can stay home to write books. We can do anything. We can do everything. So how do we choose? Especially when, as Shannon wrote on Tuesday, we live on a steady diet of news feeds, tweets and other app-philia from the land of perfect, all of which seem to proclaim: Look at me! I’ve gotten it right. Ahem, and you?
And me? Sigh. There’s more about the science of decision making in the Newsweek piece, and lots more than that in Chapter 5 of our book. And in fact, I could add quite a bit more to this post. But you know what? There’s chocolate cake in the office down the hall, and I’m headed that way. And you don’t have to tell me: You want some too.