Making good decisions in ‘an information tsunami’

From the Acting Dean of Students

“Trying to drink from a fire hose of information has harmful cognitive effects and nowhere are those effects clearer, and more worrying, than in our ability to make smart, creative, successful decisions.”

 (Begley, 2011)

The area of the human brain responsible for decision making is the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which is located in the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be the orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. The PFC contributes to the executive control of information and specifically selects, maintains, updates and reroutes information. It has been proposed that ultimately the PFC acts as a selective gating or filtering mechanism that controls how the brain processes the information it receives.

Teenagers do not have a well-developed prefrontal cortex. The adolescent brain is in a state of developmental transition. It differs structurally and chemically from the adult brain. From early adolescence through to their mid-20s, a teen’s brain develops somewhat unevenly, from back to front. The parts which develop first are those which control physical coordination, emotion and motivation. However, the PFC which controls reasoning and impulses develops last – not maturing fully until the age of 25. When it comes to decision making, teenagers are already disadvantaged.  What scientists are now identifying is that the tsunami of information that teenagers deal with in their daily lives by means of digital media could be contributing to their difficulty to make good decisions.

While we tend to assume that greater choice is better, there exists a growing body of evidence suggesting that too many choices can overwhelm our ability to discriminate and make good decisions. When we are presented with more variables than the conscious mind can juggle, thinking can overwhelm our brain’s ability to synthesise all of these variables into a meaningful conclusion. It is mind-numbing. The sheer number of possibilities becomes paralysing. Anxiety levels spike and we find ourselves struggling to make a decision.

Angela Dimoka, Director of the Centre for Neural Decision Making at Temple University in Philadelphia, has been investigating this complicated biological phenomenon, using a problem scenario purposely designed to overtax people’s decision-making abilities. In association with economists and computer scientists, she has studied people’s responses to “combinatorial auctions”, also known as bidding wars. In a bidding war, bidders must consider a dizzying array of items that can be bought either singly or in particular combinations. The challenge presented to each bidder is that they must buy the desired combination of items at the lowest price. As the number of items and combinations increase, the bidders must juggle an explosive quantity of information. As Dimoka’s volunteers participated in the auctions, she measured their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As expected, in the initial stages of each auction, Dimoka found that as the information load began to increase, so too did the PFC activity. Neurons were rapidly firing as the PFC set about its task of selectively filtering the incoming information. More significant, however, were the findings that Dimoka made next. As the information load reached a critical point, activity in the PFC suddenly diminished, almost as if someone had flicked a switch. At this point, the bidders had reached a state of cognitive overload. From that point on, their decision making became flawed and their levels of frustration and anxiety soared.

As scientists probe how the flow of information affects decision making, several patterns have emerged:

Our brains don’t like too much information

Every piece of incoming data presents a choice: do we pay attention to it, reply or factor it into an impending decision? Research into decision science has identified an interesting trend – people who are faced with a mammoth number of choices often end up making no decision at all. At a critical point, people become overwhelmed and either make a poor decision or opt out completely.

Our working memory is limited

A pivotal 1950s study, “Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” found that the rational brain can only hold about seven different items in working memory at any one time. Anything more must be processed into long-term memory. When more than seven units of information confront the brain, it struggles to identify what information to retain and what to disregard. In an information tsunami, it becomes much harder for the brain to ignore what is repetitious and useless.

We are pressured to make rapid decisions

In addition to the quantity of incoming information, the rate of this seemingly ceaseless influx demands from us an instant response, culminating in us sacrificing accuracy and thoughtfulness for immediacy.

“We are seeing a preference for the quick over the right, in large part because so many decisions have to be made. The notion that the quick decision is better is becoming normative.”

(Clifford Nass in Begley, 2011)

We pay attention to the most recent information

The brain reacts to change and so when making decisions, we have become conditioned to give greater weight to what is most recent rather than what information is more important.  Distracted by what information has just arrived, we tend to discount what came earlier. Unfortunately, what has started to drive decision making is the urgent rather than the important.

We often neglect our unconscious

“One of the greatest surprises in decision science is the discovery that some of our best decisions are made through unconscious processes. Creative decisions are more likely to bubble up from a brain that applies unconscious thought to a problem, rather than going at it in a full-frontal analytical assault.”

 (Begley, 2011)

Our feelings are not the enemy of sound decision making. Adding emotions to the decision-making process can enhance creativity, engagement and efficiency. Taking time to dwell on a problem allows the brain to integrate new information with pre-existing knowledge. Connections are made and hidden patterns often emerge. While making a decision based on emotions alone can result in a poor outcome, if emotions are completely shut out of the decision-making process, we tend to overthink a decision and the end result can be disappointing. Jonah Lehrer, author of the book “How to Decide” has identified that people who experience physical trauma to the parts of their brain responsible for emotional reactions are actually unable to make decisions. Their rational mind dithers endlessly over the possible reasons for each course of action. Lehrer’s challenge is to find the sweet spot that exists between white-hot emotional thinking and ice-cold reason.

For our students and for ourselves, it is imperative that we develop good decision-making strategies. For teenagers faced with a prefrontal cortex still under construction, good decision making already presents a challenge. Add to that today’s world of “always on” technology and it is easy to become lost in a tsunami of information that leaves us overwhelmed and in a state of decision-making paralysis. Sharon Begley, Newsweek’s science writer, suggests the following pieces of advice that may help us to navigate our way towards more effective decision making:

  • Don’t try to keep up with emails and text messages in real time; deal with them in concentrated bursts at designated points of the day
  • Analytical reasoning is only one part of a good decision; remove yourself from the flow of information and let your unconscious kick in
  • Set priorities; if a decision hinges on a few factors, focus on them
  • If you are a “maximiser” – someone who finds it hard to say no to more information – work especially hard at turning information off and take the time to reflect.


Begley, S. (2011). I Can’t  Think! Newsweek, March 7, 28-33.

Fuller, A. (2006). Into the mystery of the adolescent mind. Byronchild, February, 14-22.

Lehrer, J. (2009). How We Decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Miller, G. (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. The Psychological Review, vol. 63, 81-97.

Shimamura, A. (2000). The role of the prefrontal cortex in dynamic filtering. Psychobiology 28 (2), 207-218.

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