Bounded Rationality in a World of Information

First published October 11, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider.  

Humans are not good data crunchers. In fact, we pretty much suck at it. There are variations to this rule, of course. We all fall somewhere on a bell curve when it comes to our sheer rational processing power. But, in general, we would all fall to the far left of even an underpowered laptop.

Herbert Simon

Herbert Simon

Herbert Simon recognized this more than a half century ago, when he coined the term “bounded rationality.”  In a nutshell, we can only process so much information before we become overloaded, when we fall back on much more human approaches, typically known as emotion and gut instinct.

Even when we think we’re being rational, logic-driven beings, our decision frameworks are built on the foundations of emotion and intuition. This is not bad. Intuition tends to be a masterful way to synthesize inputs quickly and efficiently, allowing us generally to make remarkably good decisions with a minimum of deliberation. Emotion acts to amplify this process, inserting caution where required and accelerating when necessary. Add to this the finely honed pattern recognition instincts we humans have, and it turns out the cogs of our evolutionary machinery work pretty well, allowing us to adequately function in very demanding, often overwhelming environments.

We’re pretty efficient; we’re just not that rational. There is a limit to how much information we can “crunch.”

So when information explodes around us, it raises a question – if we’re not very good at processing data, what happen when we’re inundated with the stuff? Yes, Google is doing its part by helpfully “organizing the world’s information,” allowing us to narrow down our search to the most relevant sources, but still, how much time are we willing to devote to wading through mounds of data? It’s as if we were all born to be dancers, and now we’re stuck being insurance actuaries. Unlike Heisenberg (sorry, couldn’t resist the “Breaking Bad” reference) – we don’t like it, we’re not very good at it, and it doesn’t make us feel alive.

To make things worse, we feel guilty if we don’t use the data. Now, thanks to the Web, we know it’s there. It used to be much easier to feign ignorance and trust our guts. There are few excuses now. For every decision we have to make, we know that there is information which, carefully analyzed, should lead us to a rational, logical conclusion. Or, we could just throw a dart and then go grab a beer. Life is too short as it is.

When Simon coined the term “bounded rationality,” he knew that the “bounds” were not just the limits on the information available but also the limits of our own cognitive processing power and the limits on our available time. Even if you removed the boundaries on the information available (as is now happening) those limits to cognition and time would remain.

I suspect we humans are developing the ability to fool ourselves that we are highly rational. For the decisions that count, we do the research, but often we filter that information through a very irrational web of biases, beliefs and emotions. We cherry-pick information that confirms our views, ignore contradictory data and blunder our way to what we believe is an informed decision.

But, even if we are stuck with the same brain and the same limitations, I have to admit that the explosion of available information has moved us all a couple of notches to the right on Simon’s “satisficing” curve. We may not crunch all the information available, but we are crunching more than we used to, simply because it’s available.  I guess this is a good thing, even if we’re a little delusional about our own logical abilities.

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