We deal with a lot of information. This information is rapidly condensed throughout every second of the day. Both consciously and subconsciously, our brain is working overtime to process these bits of information. The human body sends 11 million bits per second to the brain for processing, yet the conscious mind seems to be able to process only 50 bits per second. Whoa. So basically we are presented with an overwhelming and quite honestly unfathomable amount of information per second, and our conscious mind says, “hey that was way too much information, I am going to handle about .00045% of all of that, bye.” This begs so many questions! Namely, what is within those 50 bits per second and how are those 50 information bits condensed and made available for conscious processing?
“The human body sends 11 million bits per second to the brain for processing, yet the conscious mind seems to be able to process only 50 bits per second.” https://www.britannica.com/science/information-theory/Physiology
What types of information bits do we process consciously?
Our brain captures these information bits through all of our human senses. Sight is the leading source of information input with touch, hearing, smell and taste all contributing to a multi-sensory information overload. Here’s an example of what comes to mind in a stream of consciousness as I am in a Philz Coffee on Forest Ave in Palo Alto, CA (Pre COVID!). It’s about 6:45pm, I take in the shining sun and growing shadows, bustling traffic, a man tying his shoe to hop on his blue commuter bike, a nice-looking MongoDB office, a woman to my right in a white blouse texting on her iPhone, a student on my left with some noise cancelling headphones tapping her leg on a horizontal wooden bar that connects our two seats and I certainly feel the vibration of her tapping behavior, my nice (I think so, but tbh I get a lot of flack for it) blue mouse pad on the wooden bench table overlooking Forest and Alma, the taste of this Philharmonic blend of coffee which is really really good (my favorite is Tesora, but I have made an effort to try the other medium roasts because science), power outlets for my 14% battery phone in front of me that frustratingly do not seem to be connected to power, an itch on my upper back *let me get that real quick*, a pedestrian walking in from the right, another walking across the street in running clothes, Tame Impala (as always) jamming in my ears, a man riding a singular electric wheel (not sure the specific name, but Palo Alto I guess?), my teeth clenched as I realize I’m writing this, a memory of my dentist telling me to stop this, dry mouth from the plane ride from Denver, a black Chevy Tahoe making a left hand turn onto Alma, and my feet tucked under my chair resting on the chair’s lower bar.
Ok – I got maybe 20 or so, and it took me 2 minutes to type that. So I must have missed 1.3 billion subconscious information bits being processed. Better luck next time!
In a different example, let’s say you are asked where you want to go for a vacation for 9 days in August by your partner. You say hmm, and pause for a moment, and respond with a flight to SF and road trip down PCH. You maybe thought about the following: the time of year, the projected weather and climate, the cost relative to your bank account balance, your friend’s Instagram photos who went earlier in the spring, the fact that it has been high on your bucket list, the urge to get outside and explore (something you’ve wanted to do but never logistically planned for), and the people you might be able to see along the way. That seems reasonable – and an idea you could arrive at in just a matter of seconds. What you didn’t think about was the uncle who lives nearby who you really don’t want to see but he follows you on Instagram and will weirdly take it personally if you don’t swing by his place in Pismo Beach for a cold one even though it’s your trip, the struggle of packing for a 9-day trip and trying to make sure it’s functional while also not paying for additional baggage fees at the airport, the opportunity cost of not using the time to go to South America, your family’s annual trip that might coincide with that weekend, or a close friend’s birthday in Boston that you promised you’ll make it out for, but it has been 4 years and you’ve kept saying the same thing.
There are so many things we can choose to think about, but when asked a question on the spot, arriving at the specific answer is a fascinating exercise to see what you bring top of mind after evaluating so many information bits.
How are those 50 information bits condensed and made available for conscious processing?
With all of this information overload, how do we arrive at some primary factors that guide our decision making? BIAS. These biases are deeply rooted and largely exist so we can expedite the decision-making process. So what are some of the common biases we face?
We tend to harp on negative outcomes in a much more drastic light than positive outcomes. Every day you wake up and get after it, you do a great job at work and receive occasional praise for the job well done. Unfortunately, sometimes days don’t go as planned and there is visibility into that issue from your superiors. This event with the negative outcome edges out much of the positive outcomes you’ve produced over the past several weeks. We tend to remember the negatives and ignore the positives because, as humans, our brains naturally expect positive outcomes. Therefore, when an outcome is counter to this positive expectation we remember it more saliently because it was not anticipated.
We seek out information that perpetuates our existing opinions and approaches. For example, you may support a particular political candidate and align your social and economic policy views with a particular political party. As you keep up to date with news developments, you perpetuate and reinforce those views by talking with peers who share similar views and watching news networks that speak in a narrative consistent with your own.
We have an innate bias towards people who are similar to us. You gravitate towards those who have shared experience with similar likes and dislikes over someone who is different and comes to the table with opposing likes and dislikes. The opinions of those in the in-group are more heavily favored when comparing apples to apples because you feel connected to that person and assume their opinion stems from a perspective that you can relate to.
When interpreting other people’s decisions, rarely do we get a full background on the decision criteria and how the decision was ultimately chosen. We often only see and hear about the decision itself. Conversely, when we are in the driver’s seat and making decisions we are able to justify the outcome since we have the requisite context and pros and cons list. In light of this we tend to judge others at face value based on their actions and decisions.
When we explore a new topic and are forming an opinion, we tend to give significant weight to the first position we digest, because the argument explores the benefits while bashing the counter argument. To make an educated opinion or stance, it is best to understand the arguments for each side without immediately discounting the second or third position in favor of the initial position we were exposed to.
Sunk Cost Bias
When we have invested time and energy into a path forward, we tend to pursue that path even if other factors may suggest a better alternative. With resources already spent, it is hard to turn back on execution; if other alternatives present themselves and are truly superior, it may be best to re-evaluate and take another route.
It is clear that our brains over-generalize and jump to conclusions in order to make decisions at a very accelerated pace. What important information are we missing when we perceive the world through the lens of these biases? Who benefits and who suffers? With the understanding that various types of bias exist, consider hitting the pause button to cut through the noise. Let’s see what changes.