In the workplace as in life, accurate information enables you to make good decisions. We collect and analyze data like never before in order to determine when and who to hire, what to sell, where to invest, how to allocate resources, and many other business decisions.
However, when we take opinions as facts or make assumptions rather than A/B test assumptions, we are more apt to make bad decisions.
It’s astounding with all the information available to us, we are so often misled into believing false information. The internet is a great tool, but when it is used merely to reinforce our assumptions, we are using it ineffectively.
Someone should develop an app that would instantly fact check our statements as we make them, so we could—at least in theory—immediately correct ourselves. This would certainly keep inaccurate information from remaining in our heads and spreading to others.
In Factfulness, global health professor Hans Rosling presents 13 multiple choice fact-based questions about our world that, on average, chimpanzees score more accurately than most people around the world. This includes teachers, eminent scientists, investment bankers, corporate executives, journalists and senior political decision makers.
Rosling discovered that chimpanzees are not smarter than educated humans, but that “actively wrong knowledge” make us score so poorly. He determined that people simply have a worldview that is outdated and yet persists. His book lists ten instincts that distort our perspective, one of which is in the way we consume media—where fear currently rules.
“If it bleeds it leads,” was the mantra back when I studied journalism years ago. That notion is still relevant today as the news is primarily negative and therefore we rarely learn when things are improving or generally positive. This may also explain why so many Americans believe violent crime is higher than ever before when, in fact, though there’s been a slight uptick recently, on average it’s been dropping for the past 30 years.
And fear is extremely powerful: it sells newspapers, encourages us to click on links, buy things we may not need, and elect politicians to high office.
The state of journalism in the internet age is focused on being fast rather than accurate, on click-worthy and titillating rather than thoughtful and reflective, and on providing raw data rather than knowledgeable content. With so many pundits presenting alternative facts, politicians claiming fake news, and many media outlets providing opinion masquerading as news, we owe it to ourselves to be more careful and selective on what we choose to trust.
“If we want to be able to tell what’s real and what’s not, we must learn to see through the haze of virtual unreality that’s settling around us, says Charles Seife, in his book Virtual Unreality. He makes a strong case for why we need to be ever vigilant for how we understand the world around us. “We must change our relationship with information, becoming more skeptical and more cynical, and arm ourselves with powerful tools to allow us to interrogate dubious facts. And we have to be willing to spend the time to do it.”
In the workplace this requires challenging those assumptions we regularly rely upon to make big decisions. It means checking multiple sources before taking action. And it means scrutinizing from where and who is providing the information.
“As our information sources tailor themselves to our prejudices, this means eschewing the chatter that reinforces our preexisting beliefs and seeking out ones that challenge us,” writes Seife. “And above all, it means that we must accept that the rules are changing, and learn how to see the world differently than we did just a few years ago.”
In order to rise above the level of chimpanzees in our decision-making, we need to take greater responsibility and resist the impulse to take information as fact. We should question our assumptions and not be afraid to change those assumptions as needed. And we must be skeptical and cautious in order to make the right business decisions.