TMI – Too Much Information

I love technology, it’s interesting to me, but biases have always intrigued me too. Biases in technology are therefore doubly interesting to me. Our brains are really pretty great at filtering out too much information. We usually do it with tricks, tips, heuristics, reflecting on past experience and just plain old mental shortcuts. All of these little methods add up and they become our biases. Sadly for all the great productivity we achieve with these biases, we also do a lot of hurt. Which ever -ism you come up against most regularly, I’m sure there are more than a few cognitive biases involved.

I’m always interested in looking deeper into why things happen. Maybe because I’ve always found that understanding why something happens helps me make better decisions. I’ve decided to put together a series of posts that look into cognitive biases in technology. I want to start thinking about how I see each playing out in our technology today.

The first group of cognitive biases I’m going to look at can be grouped under the term “Too much Information”. With thanks to Wikipedia’s list of 188 cognitive biases. These have been grouped into categories and rendered by John Manoogian III (jm3), Buster Benson and TilmannR. 

design: John Manoogian IIIcategories and descriptions: Buster Bensonimplementation: TilmannR, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We notice things already primed in memory or repeated often

We often hear about biases in a negative light. But, biases in general, and biases in technology are not always all bad news. Some of the biases in technology can be beneficial, while some are double edged swords. I’m going to try and include both positive and negative aspects of biases in technology throughout this post.

So to get started on Techhappys’ version of 188 cognitive biases (in technology) I’m going to start with TMI – Too Much Information. Now, I’ve been heard more than a few times telling my clients that “All search grows to require curation, and all curation grows to require search”. It’s true, we can’t know it all, and we most definitely can’t remember it all. (But I think that’s a blessing not a curse…)

Techhappy list of Biases in Technology – Too much Information

Availability heuristic

The availability heuristic, also known as availability bias, is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method, or decision.

If you want to be faster on your phone, then this one can be used for good. Just make sure all the icons on your phone screen are ordered in your own order of personal preference. If you like colour co-ordination over alphabetical order, then I can tell you right now that is totally normal. If it’s your preference, then you’ll be faster at finding apps you’re looking for and you’ll be less visually cluttered. The flip side is, that if you don’t know a feature is available, you can’t take advantage of it.

Attentional bias

Attentional bias refers to how a person’s perception is affected by selective factors in their attention. Attentional biases may explain an individual’s failure to consider alternative possibilities when occupied with an existing train of thought

You know Facebook and Instagram have done a lot of study on this exact topic. Lots of other apps make use use of this to keep your attention coming back to them over and over. Notifications are one way apps use to get their important information back to the top of your list. As some of you are aware, I have spent 10 years in industrial automation. One major requirement for HMI (Human Machine Interfaces) is setting the “alarm level” of each individual alarm for machine operators. This is so important, because due to “Operator Blindness” people stop looking at things – including the alarm list. Critical alarms (like “You’re running out of batteries”) get swamped out by annoying (and poorly configured) notifications. Likewise operator blindness hits again when people blank out advertisements from websites. If your menu looks a bit like advertisements, people literally won’t be able to see it.

Illusory truth effect

The illusory truth effect (also known as the illusion of truth effectvalidity effecttruth effect, or the reiteration effect) is the tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure.

The more you hear it, the truer it feels. This is exactly why you should curate your own news feed with trusted news sources. This includes friends, associates and of course reporters/journalists who you believe will report on real, true, actual AND correctly verified facts. EVEN if you don’t agree with their personal or political views. If you fill your feeds with half-truths, untruths or disinformation then you’ll start to measure up against them. It’s only human after all. If you fill your feed with air-brushed perfection then you will start to think that is normal. It’s not. It’s not healthy either. You may find yourself surprised one day when your expectations no longer meet with reality.

Mere–exposure effect

The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.

You ever thought about getting an iPhone/Android after having been using an Android/iPhone for the past year?? Yeah, it makes you feel a bit weird doesn’t it… Just being familiar with one way of doing or being doesn’t make the other ones bad by default. I’ve helped staunch iPhone users switch to Android, and the other way around too. It’s a bias that ought to encourage repetition of good things, but it can make it really hard to switch ecosystems.

Context effect

context effect is an aspect of cognitive psychology that describes the influence of environmental factors on one’s perception of a stimulus.

Affiliate Marketing – It can be hard to spot these days, and it’s not always a bad thing. Lot’s of products go together really well and that’s why we have this bias in the first place. Because things that go together, often go together really well, and we remember that. The reverse is also true, and we can use that to avoid an impending disaster if we notice it coming.

Cue–dependent forgetting

Cue-dependent forgetting, or retrieval failure, is the failure to recall information without memory cues.

Just stop labelling your folders with numbers only. I’m looking at you people who put everything in a folder with that day’s date as the folder name, and no other identifying information. No one can find what you’ve saved, not even you. I’m all open to a well organised file structure, but sometimes that requires a little forethought.

Mood–congruent memory bias

Mood congruence is the consistency between a person’s emotional state with the broader situations and circumstances being experienced by the persons at that time.

Have you searched spotify for “cleaning music” or “party music” or anything like that? Well that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Now days you don’t even need to search half the time. Those algorithms are getting pretty good. How do they know before you do that you’re going to want something upbeat, or something classical??? How do they even know your mood? The algorithm doesn’t. All it knows is that people who share a similar digital footprint and did what you’ve done recently then searched for that specific thing.

Frequency illusion/Baader–Meinhof Phenomenon

Frequency illusion, also known as the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon or frequency bias, is a cognitive bias in which, after noticing something for the first time, there is a tendency to notice it more often, leading someone to believe that it has an increased frequency of occurrence.

You might not have noticed the dead pixels in your screen. That is until someone points them out to you. Now you just cant stop noticing them every thirty seconds. I bet they’re even bugging you right now!

Empathy gap

hot-cold empathy gap is a cognitive bias in which people underestimate the influences of visceral drives on their own attitudes, preferences, and behaviours.

I bet you think that you’re immune to the pull of those unread notifications. According to this type of bias we are all underestimating how much our phones can burn a hole in our pockets. I recommend keeping an eye on your screen time, which is very easy to do with screen time widgets. Add one to your home screen, or configure the screen time settings of your digital ecosystem. You’ll be able to find out just how much of a pull these things have on us.

Omission bias

Omission bias is the phenomenon in which people prefer omission (inaction) over commission (action) and people tend to judge harm as a result of commission more negatively than harm as a result of omission.

Lets pretend we’ve got a fancy new machine learning application. And let’s train it on some data which omits (doesn’t include) a certain type of person. Now the application doesn’t know anything about this type of person. That means it can’t make any adjustment or allowance for them. Was it worse to omit them? Or is it worse to actively block them from using the application because it’s “not made for them”? Is it actually any different at all?

Base rate fallacy

The base rate fallacy, also called base rate neglect or base rate bias, is a type of fallacy in which people tend to ignore the base rate (i.e., general prevalence) in favor of the individuating information (i.e., information pertaining only to a specific case).

When you’ve seen so may retouched photos that you start to think they represent reality, you’re falling victim to the base rate fallacy. The truth is you’re seeing too many retouched “people”. At the same time you’re not seeing enough real-life #nofilter people. Your brain is taking a shortcut to tell you that beautiful people really do look perfect all the time. The reality of course, is that real people have all sorts of different features. Real people are amazing and they are beautiful all the same.

This bias is one reason that overuse of social media can become so dangerous to our mental health. You can combat this by being aware that the bias exists and taking actions to circumvent the damages. One way to do this is by setting and sticking to screen time limits that you choose yourself. Next time you are considering new personal quarterly goals, or looking for SMART goals consider evaluating just how much time you want to dedicate to these platforms.

I’m a big fan of the commons, and this list of biases and the organised structure was put together by some very thoughtful people – I want to say thanks to them for making it available in the commons and allowing me to put my own thoughts to it by publishing it with this Creative Commons Licence. You can also check out the entire list of 188 cognitive biases listed on wikipedia if that tickles your fancy.

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