Is Busy the New Alpha?

Imagine you’ve just been introduced into a new social situation. Your brain immediately starts creating a social hierarchy. That’s what we do. We try to identify the power players. The process by which we do this is interesting. The first thing we do is look for obvious cues. In a new job, that would be titles and positions. Then, the process becomes very Bayesian – we form a base understanding of the hierarchy almost immediately and then constantly update it as we gain more knowledge. We watch power struggles and update our hierarchy based on the winners and losers. We start assigning values to the people in this particular social network and; more importantly, start assessing our place in the network and our odds for ascending in the hierarchy.

All of that probably makes sense to you as you read it. There’s nothing really earth shaking or counter intuitive. But what is interesting is that the cues we use to assign standings are context dependent. They can also change over time. What’s more, they can vary from person to person or generation to generation.

In other words, like most things, our understanding of social hierarchy is in the midst of disruption.

An understanding of hierarchy appears to be hardwired into us. A recent study found that humans can determine social standing and the accumulation of power pretty much as soon as they can walk. Toddlers as young as 17 months could identify the alphas in a group. One of the authors of the study, University of Washington psychology professor Jessica Sommerville , said that even the very young can “see that someone who is more dominant gets more stuff.” That certainly squares with our understanding of how the world works. “More stuff” has been how we’ve determined social status for hundreds of years. In sociology, it’s called conspicuous consumption, a term coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen. And it’s a signaling strategy that evolved in humans over our recorded history. The more stuff we had, and the less we had to do to get that stuff, the more status we had. Just over a hundred years ago, Veblen called this the Leisure Class.

But today that appears to be changing. A recent study seems to indicate that we now associate busyness with status. Here, it’s time – not stuff – that is the scarce commodity. Social status signaling is more apt to involve complaining about how we never go on a vacation than about our “summer on the continent”.

At least, this seems to be true in the U.S. The researchers also ran their study in Italy and there the situation was reversed. Italians still love their lives of leisure. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday. In Italy, every employee is entitled to at least 32 paid days off per year.

In our world of marketing – which is acutely aware of social signaling – this could create some interesting shifts in messaging. I think we’re already seeing this. Campaigns aimed at busy people seem to equate scarcity of time with success. The one thing missing in all this social scrambling – whether it be conspicuous consumption or working yourself to death – might be happiness. Last year a study out of the University of British Columbia found a strong link between those who value their time more than money and happiness.

Maybe those Italians are on to something.

Curmudgeon, Chicken Little or Cognoscenti?

Apparently I’m old and out of step. Curmudgeonly, even. And this is from people of my own generation. My previous column about the potential shallowness encouraged by social media drew a few comments that indicated I was just being a grumpy old man. One was from an old industry friend – Brett Tabke:

“The rest of the article is like out of the 70’s in that it is devoid of the reality that is the uber-me generation. The selfie is only a reflection of their inward focus.”

The other was from Monica Emrich, whom I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting:

” ’Social Media Is Barely Skin-Deep.’ ho hum. History shows: when new medium hits, civilization as we know it is over.”

These comments seem to telling me, “Relax. You just don’t understand because you’re too old. Everything will be great.” And, if that’s true, I’d be okay with that. I’m more than willing to be proven a doddering old fool if it means technology is ushering us into a new era of human greatness.

But what if this time is different? What if Monica’s facetious comment actually nailed it? Maybe civilization as we know it will be over. The important part of this is “as we know it.” Every technological disruption unleashes a wave of creative destruction that pushes civilization in a new direction. We seem to blindly assume it will always go in the right direction. And it is true that technology has generally elevated the human race. But not uniformly – and not consistently. What if this shift is different? What if we become less than what we were? It can happen. Brexit – Xenophobia – Trump – Populism, all these things are surfing on the tides of new technology.

Here’s the problem. There are some aspects of technology that we’ve never had to deal with before – at least, not at this scale. One these aspects (other aspects will no doubt be the topic of a future Media Insider) is that technology is now immersive and ubiquitous. It creates an alternate reality for us, and it has done in it in a few short decades. Why is this dangerous? It’s dangerous because evolution has not equipped us to deal with this new reality. In the past, when there has been a shift in our physical reality, it has taken place over several generations. Natural selection had the time to reshape the human genome to survive and eventually thrive in this new reality. Along the way, we acquired checks and balances that would allow us to deal with the potentially negative impacts of the environment.

But our new reality is different. It’s happen in the space of a single generation. There is no way we could have acquired natural defenses against it. We are operating in an environment we have been untested for. The consequences are yet to be discovered.

No, your response might be to say that, “Yes, evolution doesn’t move this quickly, but out brains can. They are elastic and malleable.” This is true, but there’s a big “but” that lies hidden in this approach. Our brains rewire to be a better match their environment. This is one of the things that humans excel at. But this rewiring happens on top of a primitive platform with some built in limitations. The assumption is that a better match with our environment provides a better chance for survival of the species.

But what if technology is throwing us a curve ball in this case? No matter what the environment we have adapted to, there has been one constant: The history of humans depends on our success in living together. We have evolved to be social animals but that evolution is predicated on the assumption that our socializing would take place face-to-face. Technology is artificially decoupling our social interactions from the very definition of society that we have evolved to be able to handle. A recent Wharton interview with Eden Collinsworth sounds the same alarm bells.

“The frontal lobes, which are the part of the brain that puts things in perspective and allows you to be empathetic, are constantly evolving. But it is less likely to evolve and develop those skills if you are in front of a screen. In other words, those skills come into play when you have a face-to-face interaction with someone. You can observe facial gestures. You can hear the intonation of a voice. You’re more likely to behave moderately in that exchange, unless it’s a just a knock-down, drag-out fight.”

Collinsworth’s premise – which is covered in her new book, Behaving Badly – is that this artificial reality is changing our concepts of morality and ethics. She reminds us the two are interlinked, but they are not the same thing. Morality is our own personal code of conduct. Ethics are a shared code that society depends on to instill a general sense of fairness. Collinsworth believes both are largely learned from the context of our culture. And she worries that a culture that is decoupled from the physical reality we have evolved to operate in may have dire consequences.

The fact is that if our morality and ethics are intended to keep us socially more cohesive, this works best in a face-to-face context. In an extreme example of this, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former paratrooper and professor of psychology at West Point, showed how our resistance to killing another human in combat is inversely related to our physical distance from them. The closer we are to them, the more resistant we are to the idea of killing them. This makes sense in an evolutionary environment where all combat was hand-to-hand. But today, the killer could be in a drone flight control center thousands of miles from his or her intended target.

This evolved constraint on unethical behavior – the social check and balance of being physically close to the people we’re engaging with – is important. And while the application of the two examples I’ve cited; One – the self-absorbed behavior on social networks – and Two – the moral landscape of a drone strike operator, may seem magnitudes apart in terms of culpability, the underlying neural machinery is related. What we believe is right and wrong is determined by a moral compass set to the bearings of our environment. The fundamental workings of that compass assumed we would be face-to-face with the people we have to deal with. But thanks to technology, that’s no longer the case.

Maybe Brett and Monica are right. Maybe I’m just being alarmist. But if not, we’d better start paying more attention. Because civilization “as we know it” may be ending.

 

Live, From Inside the Gale of Creative Destruction

Talk about cognitive dissonance…

First, Mediapost’s Jack Loechner writes about a Forrester Report, The End of Advertising as We Know It, which was published earlier this year. Seeing as last week I starting ringing the death knell for advertising agencies, I though I should check the report out.

Problem One: The report was only available on Forrester if I was willing to plunk down $499. American. Which is – I don’t know – about 14 zillion Canadian. Much as I love and respect you, my readers, there’s no friggin’ way that’s going to happen. So, I go to Google to see if I can find a free source to get the highlights.

Problem Two: Everyone and Sergio Zyman’s dog has apparently decided to write a book or white paper entitled “The End of Advertising as We Know It.” Where to begin researching the end? Well, here’s one deliciously ironic option – one of those white papers was published by none other than WPP. You know I have to check that out! As it turns out – no surprise here – it’s a sales pitch for the leading edge cool stuff that one of WPP’s agencies, AKQA, can do for you. I tried to sift through the dense text but gave up after continually bumping into buzz-laden phrases like “365 ideas”, “Business Invention” and “People Stories.” I return to the search results page and follow a Forbes link that looks more promising.

Problem Three: Yep! This is it. It’s Forbes summation of the Forrester Report. I start reading and learning that the biggest problem with advertising is that we hate to be interrupted by advertising. Well, I could have told you that. Oh – wait – I did (for free, I might add). But here’s the cognitively dissonant part. As I’m trying to read the article, an autoplay video ad keeps playing on the Forbes page, interrupting me. And you know what? I hated it! The report was right. At least, I think it was, as I stopped reading the article.

I’m guessing you’re going through something similar right now. As you’re trying to glean my pearls of wisdom, you’re tiptoeing around advertising on the page. That’s not Mediapost’s fault. They have a business to run and right now, there’s no viable business model other than interruptive advertising to keep the lights on. So you have the uniquely dissonant experience of reading about the end of advertising while being subjected to advertising.

My experience – which is hardly unique – is a painful reminder about the inconvenient truth of innovative disruption: it’s messy in the middle of it. When Joseph Schumpeter called it a “gale of creative destruction” it made it sound revolutionary and noble in the way that the Ride of the Valkyries or the Starks retaking Winterfell is noble. But this stuff gets messy, especially if you’re trying to hang on to the things being destroyed when the gale hits in full force.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell. The tension goes back to a comment made back in 1984 from Stewart Brand to Steve Wozniak:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

In publishing, we not only have the value of the information itself, but we have the cost of wrapping insight around that information. Forrester’s business is industry analysis. Someone has to do the analyzing and there are costs associated with that. So they charge $499 for a report on the end of advertising.

Which brings us to the second part of the tension. Because so much information is now free and Google gives me, the information consumer, the expectation that I can find it for free – or, at least, highlights of it for free – I expect all information to be free. I believe I have an alternative to paying Forrester. In today’s age, information tends to seep through the cracks in pay walls, as it did when Forbes and Mediapost published articles on the report. Forrester is okay with that, because it hopes it will make more people willing to pay $499 aware of the report.

For their part Forbes – or Mediapost – relies on advertising to keep the information available to you for free, matching our expectations. But they have their own expenses. Whether we like it or not, interruptive advertising is the only option currently available to them.

So there we have it, a very shaky house of cards built on a rapidly crumbling foundation. Welcome to the Edge of Chaos. A new model will be created from this destruction. That is inevitable. But in the meantime, there’s going to be a lot of pain and WTF moments. Just like the one I had this week.

Social Media is Barely Skin Deep

Here’s a troubling fact. According to a study from the Georgia Institute of Tech, half of all selfies taken have one purpose, to show how good the subject looks. They are intended to show the world how attractive we are: our makeup, our clothes, our shoes, our lips, our hair. The category accounts for more selfies than all other categories combined. More than selfies taken with people or pets we love, more than us doing the things we love, more than being in the places we love, more than eating the food we love. It appears that the one thing we love the most is ourselves. The selfies have spoken

In this study, the authors reference a 1956 work from sociologist Erving Goffman– The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman took Shakespeare’s line – “All the World is a Stage and all the men and women merely players” – quite literally. His theory was that we are all playing the part of whom we want to be perceived as. Our lives are divided up into two parts – the front, when we’re “on stage” and playing our part, and the “back” – when we prepare for our role. The roles we play depend on the context we’re in.

 

Goffman’s theory introduces an interesting variable into consideration. The way we play these roles and the importance we place on them will vary with the individual. For some of us, it will be all about the role and less about the actual person who inhabits that role. These people are obsessed about how they are perceived by others. They’re the ones snapping selfies of themselves to show the world just how marvelous they look.

For others, they care little about what the world thinks of them. They are internally centered and are focused on living their lives, rather than acting their way through their lives for the entertainment of – and validation from – others. In between the two extremes is the ubiquitous bell curve of normal distribution. Most of us live somewhere on that curve.

Goffman’s theory was created specifically to provide insight into face-to-face encounters. Technology has again throw a gigantic wrinkle into things – and that wrinkle may explain why we keep taking those narcissistic selfies.

Humans are pretty damned good at judging authenticity in a face-to-face setting. We pick up subtle cues from across a wide swath of interpersonal communication channels: vocal intonations, body language, eye-to-eye contact, micro-expressions. Together, these inputs give us a pretty accurate “bullshit detector.” If someone comes across as an inauthentic “phony” the majority of us will just roll our eyes and simply start avoiding the person. In face-to-face encounters there is a social feedback mechanism that keeps the “actors” amongst us at least somewhat honest in order to remain part of the social network that forms their audience.

But social media platforms provide the idea incubator for inauthentic presentation of our own personas. There are three factors in particular that allow shallow “actors” to flourish – even to the point of going viral.

False Intimacy and Social Distance

In his blog on Psychology Today, counselor Michael Formica talks about two of these factors – social distance and false intimacy. I’ve talked about false intimacy before in another context – the “labelability” of celebrities. Social media removes the transactional costs of retaining a relationship. This has the unfortunate side effect of screwing up the brain’s natural defenses against inauthentic relationships. When we’re physically close to a person, there are no filters for the bad stuff. We get it all. Our brains have evolved to do a cost/benefit analysis of each relationship we have and decide whether it’s worth the effort to maintain it. This works well when we depend on physically proximate relationships for our own well-being.

But social media introduces a whole new context for maintaining social relationships. When the transactional costs are reduced to a scanning of a newsfeed and hitting the “Like” button, the brain says “What the hell, let’s add them to our mental friends list. It’s not costing me anything.” In evolutionary terms, intimacy is the highest status we can give to a relationship and it typically only comes with a thorough understanding of the good and the bad involved in that relationship by being close to the person – both physically and figuratively. With zero relational friction, we’re more apt to afford intimacy, whether or not it’s been earned.

The Illusion of Acceptance

The previous two factors perfectly set the “stage” for false personas to flourish, but it’s the third factor that allows them to go viral. Every actor craves acceptance from his or her audience. Social exclusion is the worst fate imaginable for them. In a face-to-face world, our mental cost/benefit algorithm quickly weeds out false relationships that are not worth the investment of our social resources. But that’s not true online. If it costs us nothing, we may be rolling our eyes – safely removed behind our screen – as we’re also hitting the “Like” button. And shallow people are quite content with shallow forms of acceptance. A Facebook like is more than sufficient to encourage them to continue their act. To make it even more seductive, social acceptance is now measurable – there are hard numbers assigned to popularity.

This is pure cat-nip to the socially needy. Their need to craft a popular – but entirely inauthentic – persona goes into overdrive. Their lives are not lived so much as manufactured to create a veneer just thick enough to capture a quick click of approval. Increasingly, they retreat to an online world that follows the script they’ve written for themselves.

Suddenly it makes sense why we keep taking all those selfies of ourselves. When all the world’s a stage, you need a good head shot.

Our Brain on Reviews

There’s an interesting new study that was just published about how our brain mathematically handles online reviews that I wanted to talk about today. But before I get to that, I wanted to talk about foraging a bit.

The story of how science discovered our foraging behaviors serves as a mini lesson in how humans tick. The economists of the 1940’s and 50’s discovered the world of micro-economics, based on the foundation that humans were perfectly rational – we were homo economicus. When making personal economic choices in a world of limited resources, we maximized utility. The economists of the time assumed this was a uniquely human property, bequeathed on us by virtue of the reasoning power of our superior brains.

In the 60’s, behavior ecologists knocked our egos down a peg or two. It wasn’t just humans that could do this. Foxes could do it. Starlings could do it. Pretty much any species had the same ability to seemingly make optimal choices when faced with scarcity. It was how animals kept from starving to death. This was the birth of foraging theory. This wasn’t some homo-sapien-exclusive behavior that was directed from the heights of rationality downwards. It was an evolved behavior that was built from the ground up. It’s just that humans had learned how to apply it to our abstract notion of economic utility.

Three decades later, two researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center found another twist. Not only had our ability to forage been evolved all the way through our extensive family tree, but we seemed to borrow this strategy and apply it to entirely new situations. Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card found that when humans navigate content in online environments, the exact same patterns could be found. We foraged for information. Those same calculations determined whether we would stay in an information “patch” or move on to more promising territory.

This seemed to indicate three surprising discoveries about our behavior:

  • Much of what we think is rational behavior is actually driven by instincts that have evolved over millions of years
  • We borrow strategies from one context and apply them in another. We use the same basic instincts to find the FAQ section of a website that we used to find sustenance on the savannah.
  • Our brains seem to use Bayesian logic to continuously calculate and update a model of the world. We rely on this model to survive in our environment, whatever and wherever that environment might be.

So that brings us to the study I mentioned at the beginning of this column. If we take the above into consideration, it should come as no surprise that our brain uses similar evolutionary strategies to process things like online reviews. But the way it does it is fascinating.

The amazing thing about the brain is how it seamlessly integrates and subconsciously synthesizes information and activity from different regions. For example, in foraging, the brain integrates information from the regions responsible for wayfinding – knowing our place in the world – with signals from the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – an area responsible for reward monitoring and executive control. Essentially, the brain is constantly updating an algorithm about whether the effort required to travel to a new “patch” will be balanced by the reward we’ll find when we get there. You don’t consciously marshal the cognitive resources required to do this. The brain does it automatically. What’s more – the brain uses many of the same resources and algorithm whether we’re considering going to McDonald’s for a large order of fries or deciding what online destination would be the best bet for researching our upcoming trip to Portugal.

In evaluating online reviews, we have a different challenge: how reliable are the reviews? The context may be new – our ancestors didn’t have TripAdvisor or AirBNB ratings for choosing the right cave to sleep in tonight – but the problem isn’t. What criteria should we use when we decide to integrate social information into our decision making process? If Thorlak the bear hunter tells me there’s a great cave a half-day’s march to the south, should I trust him? Experience has taught us a few handy rules of thumb when evaluating sources of social information: reliability of the source and the consensus of crowds. Has Thorlak ever lied to us before? Do others in the tribe agree with him? These are hardwired social heuristics. We apply them instantly and instinctively to new sources of information that come from our social network. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. So it should come as no surprise that we borrow these strategies when dealing with online reviews.

In a neuro-scanning study from the University College of London, researchers found that reliability plays a significant role in how our brains treat social information. Once again, a well-evolved capability of the brain is recruited to help us in a new situation. The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that keeps track of our social connections. This “social monitoring” ability of the brain worked in concert with ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area that processes value estimates.

The researchers found that this part of our brain works like a Bayesian computer when considering incoming information. First we establish a “prior” that represents a model of what we believe to be true. Then we subject this prior to possible statistical updating based on new information – in this case, online reviews. If our confidence is high in this “prior” and the incoming information is weak, we tend to stick with our initial belief. But if our confidence is low and the incoming information is strong – i.e. a lot of positive reviews – then the brain overrides the prior and establishes a new belief, based primarily on the new information.

While this seems like common sense, the mechanisms at play are interesting. The brain effortlessly pattern matches new types of information and recruits the region that is most likely to have evolved to successfully interpret that information. In this case, the brain had decided that online reviews are most like information that comes from social sources. It combines the interpretation of this data with an algorithmic function that assigns value to the new information and calculates a new model – a new understanding of what we believe to be true. And it does all this “under the hood” – sitting just below the level of conscious thought.

The Status Quo Bias – Why Every B2B Vendor has to Understand It

It’s probably the biggest hurdle any B2B vendor has to get over. It’s called the Status Quo bias and it’s deadly in any high-risk purchase scenario. According to Wikipedia, the bias occurs when the current baseline (or status quo) is taken as a reference point, and any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss. In other words, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. We believe that simply because something exists, it must have merit. The burden of proof then falls on the vendor to overcome this level of complacency

The Status Quo Bias is actually a bundle of other common biases, including the Endowment Effect, the Loss Aversion Bias, The Existence Bias, Mere Exposure effect and other psychological factors that tend to continually jam the cogs of B2B commerce. Why B2B? The Status Quo Bias is common in any scenario where risk is high and reward is low, but B2B in particular is subject to it because these are group-buying decisions. And, as I’ll soon explain, groups tend to default to Status Quo bias with irritating regularity. The new book from CEB (recently acquired by Gartner) – The Challenger Customer – is all about the status quo bias.

So why is the bias particularly common with groups? Think of the dynamics at play here. Generally speaking, most people have some level of the Status Quo Bias. Some will have it more than others, depending on their level of risk tolerance. But let’s look at what happens when we lump all those people together in a group and force them to come to a consensus. Generally, you’re going to have a one or two people in the group that are driving for change. Typically, these will be the ones that have the most to gain and have a risk tolerance threshold that allows the deal to go forward. On the other end of the spectrum you have some people who have low risk tolerance levels and nothing to gain. They may even stand to lose if the deal goes forward (think IT people who have to implement a new technology). In between you have the moderates. The gain factor and their risk tolerance levels net out to close to zero. Given that those that have something to gain will say yes and those who have nothing to gain will say no, it’s this middle group that will decide whether the deal will live or die.

Without the Status Quo bias, the deal might have a 50/50 chance. But the status quo bias stacks the deck towards negative outcomes for the vendor. Even if it tips the balance just a little bit towards “no” – that’s all that’s required to stop a deal dead in its tracks. The more disruptive the deal, the greater the Status Quo Bias. Let’s remember – this is B2B. There are no emotional rewards that can introduce a counter acting bias. It’s been shown in at least one study (Baker, Laury, Williams – 2008) that groups tend to be more risk averse than the individuals that make up that group. When the groups start discussing and – inevitably – disagreeing, it’s typically easier to do nothing.

So, how do we stick handle past this bias? The common approach is to divide and conquer – identifying the players and tailoring messages to speak directly to them. The counter intuitive finding of the CEB Challenger Customer research was that dividing and conquering is absolutely the wrong thing to do. It actually lessens the possibility of making a sale. While this sounds like it’s just plain wrong, it makes sense if we shift our perspective from the selling side to the buying side.

With our vendor goggles on, we believe that if we tailor messaging to appeal to every individual’s own value proposition, that would be a way to build consensus and drive the deal forward. And that would be true, if every member of our buying committee was acting rationally. But as we soon see when we put on the buying googles, they’re not. Their irrational biases are firmly stacked up on the “do nothing” side of the ledger. And by tailoring messaging in different directions, we’re actually just giving them more things to disagree about. We’re creating dysfunction rather than eliminating it. Disagreements almost always default back to the status quo, because it’s the least risky option. The group may not agree about much, but they can agree that the incumbent solution creates the least disruption.

So what do you do? Well, I won’t steal the CEB’s thunder here, because the Challenger Customer is absolutely worth a read if you’re a B2B vendor. The authors, Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, Pat Spenner and Nick Toman, lay out step by step strategy to get around the Status Quo bias. The trick is to create a common psychological frame where everyone can agree that doing nothing is the riskiest alternative. But biases are notoriously sticky things. Setting up a commonly understood frame requires a deep understanding of the group dynamics at play. The one thing I really appreciate about CEB’s approach is that it’s “psychologically sound.” They make no assumptions about buyer rationality. They know that emotions ultimately drive all human behavior and B2B purchases are no exception.

We’re Becoming Intellectually “Obese”

Humans are defined by scarcity. All our evolutionary adaptations tend to be built to ensure survival in harsh environments. This can sometimes backfire on us in times of abundance.

For example, humans are great at foraging. We have built-in algorithms that tell us which patches are most promising and when we should give up on the patch we’re in and move to another patch.

We’re also good at borrowing strategies that evolution designed for one purpose and applying them for another purpose. This is called exaptation. For example, we’ve exapted our food foraging strategies and applied them to searching for information in an online environment. We use these skills when we look at a website, conduct an online search or scan our email inbox. But as we forage for information – or food – we have to remember, this same strategy assumes scarcity, not abundance.

Take food for example. Nutritionally we have been hardwired by evolution to prefer high fat, high calorie foods. That’s because this wiring took place in an environment of scarcity, where you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from. High fat, high calorie and high salt foods were all “jackpots” if food was scarce. Eating these foods could mean the difference between life and death. So our brains evolved to send us a reward signal when we ate these foods. Subsequently, we naturally started to forage for these things.

This was all good when our home was the African savannah. Not so good when it’s Redondo Beach, there’s a fast food joint on every corner and the local Wal-Mart’s shelves are filled to overflowing with highly processed pre-made meals. We have “refined” food production to continually push our evolutionary buttons, gorging ourselves to the point of obesity. Foraging isn’t a problem here. Limiting ourselves is.

So, evolution has made humans good at foraging when things are scarce, but not so good at filtering in an environment of abundance. I suspect the same thing that happened with food is today happening with information.

Just like we are predisposed to look for food that is high in fats, salt and calories, we are drawn to information that:

  1. Leads to us having sex
  2. Leads to us having more than our neighbors
  3. Leads to us improving our position in the social hierarchy

All those things make sense in an evolutionary environment where there’s not enough to go around. But, in a society of abundance, they can cause big problems.

Just like food, for most of our history information was in short supply. We had to make decisions based on too little information, rather than too much. So most of our cognitive biases were developed to allow us to function in a setting where knowledge was in short supply and decisions had to be made quickly. In such an environment, these heuristic short cuts would usually end up working in our favor, giving us a higher probability of survival.

These evolutionary biases become dangerous as our information environment becomes more abundant. We weren’t built to rationally seek out and judiciously evaluate information. We were built to make decisions based on little or no knowledge. There is an override switch we can use if we wish, but it’s important to know that just like we’re inherently drawn to crappy food, we’re also subconsciously drawn to crappy information.

Whether or not you agree with the mainstream news sources, the fact is that there was a thoughtful editorial process, which was intended to improve the quality of information we were provided. Entire teams of people were employed to spend their days rationally thinking about gathering, presenting and validating the information that would be passed along to the public. In Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, they were “thinking slow” about it. And because the transactional costs of getting that information to us was so high, there was a relatively strong signal to noise ratio.

That is no longer the case. Transactional costs have dropped to the point that it costs almost nothing to get information to us. This allows information providers to completely bypass any editorial loop and get it in front of us. Foraging for that information is not the problem. Filtering it is. As we forage through potential information “patches” – whether they be on Google, Facebook or Twitter – we tend to “think fast” – clicking on the links that are most tantalizing.

I would have never dreamed that having too much information could be a bad thing. But most of the cautionary columns that I’ve written about in the last few years all seem to have the same root cause – we’re becoming intellectually “obese.” We’ve developed an insatiable appetite for fast, fried, sugar-frosted information.