Archive for 2010/03/21

Being clubbed by information

During my college years, I was active in student organizations. The students who were active were so well educated and brought tons of arguments for their cause. The effect was long, tedious, information packed discussions and meetings. One of the years when I attended the yearly National Student Union's meeting, I got sick about two a clock in the night. I rushed to the hospital, and after getting treatment, I could return two hours later. Since I was kind of agitated, I couldn't go to sleep so I went back to the meeting. They were not discussing the same sentence as when I had left, but had just discussed two more sentences. It was crazy.

When I later became a board member for this national organization, one of the board members really stood out. She wanted to strike everything we wrote. Her standard request when we were discussing any text was to strike every sentence. Since everyone else wanted to add new sentences, I asked her about her strategy. She said that she wanted all sentences and all words to bring unique value to a text and that if you add one superfluous word, that will decrease the value of the rest of the text. I had never thought of it like that, but her words were an eye opener and I've tried practicing her ideas ever since. Do tell a story, but don't pack it with unnecessary details.

Many think the more details and information, the better the decision will be. But I don't think that is true. When superfluous details are flooding us, we make bad decisions and try to put value to this information which brings no value. Our brains are hard wired to see patterns and make thing intelligible. Many times this is a blessing but in our information packed world, it can be devastating. My high school math teacher used this many times to make his assignments more challenging. By adding details which were unnecessary to solve problems, he made them harder to crack.

Research also backs up that unnecessary information makes our decision making harder. In Wisdom of the Crowds, James Surowiecki points to a study performed by Jack Treynor. He asked college students to guess how many beans there were in a jar. The mean guess was 871 when there was 850 beans in the jar. A really good guess, in other words. But when Treynor added the information that the jar was of glass, the mean guess was  off by 15%. The jar was of glass, so he didn't provide with any false information, but he clogged up the student's minds.

We see and hear patterns. And we give meaning to  things that does not have meaning. This is also illustrated in an episode on reverse speak on Skeptoid.

The journal Science published an article in 1981 by Remez, Rubin, Pisoni, and Carrell called Speech perception without traditional speech cues. By playing what they called a "three-tone sinusoidal replica", or a complicated sine wave sound, they found that people were able to perceive speech, when in fact there were no traditional speech sounds present in the signal. So rather than laughing at a reverse speech advocate, instead appreciate the fact that there is good science driving their perception of what they're hearing. They're not making anything up, they're just unaware of the natural explanation for their phenomenon.

Here is one amazing example. Listen to it. It does sounds like words, doesn't? But when you've heard this, and then listen to the first sound file, it sounds even more like words.

So, when you're making a presentation or participate in a discussion: how often do you add superfluous details? Let every slide, picture and word fight for their right to exist. Ask yourself if it adds meaning or simply detract dito. Did the blog picture make the story more intelligible?

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Categories: Agile