Having too much information can cloud our judgment, especially around big decisionsby AC Grayling / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
In a world where a ceaseless barrage of information, opinion, advertising and spin makes not for clarity but confusion, it is inevitable that people will fall back on what their guts say to make decisions. The relentlessness of the news and opinion cycle is exhausting, and it gives people an uncomfortable sense of being manipulated by interests whose real agenda is unclear.
You would think that having more opportunities to be informed would have the opposite effect: that it would result in an education, by richness of resource, of informed opinion. Instead, the constant bewildering roar has a dumbing effect, a thought-numbing and distracting effect, which does no-one but the demagogues any good.
I once occupied a house in the Tuscan countryside next door to the kennels of that region’s principal group of hunting hounds. They howled and bayed all night and day, egging each other on in alternating waves of excitement and anxiety. Sleep was not possible, the baking days were made hideous by their uproar. The person who let the house to visitors had not mentioned them in the advertisement, and was deaf (perhaps understandably, after herself being exposed to all that bruiting) to remonstrance. It quickly became impossible to think, or even care, about anything other than escape. Thus it is today with what was once called “the public conversation.”
Even in less dramatic times than the present, the urgency of news and comment media to be doing something, anything, to hold our attention, requires them to keep up their howling. For opinions to be heard, contributors need to shout more loudly than the surrounding hubbub, and at the same time have to make their messages simpler and briefer. All is therefore a yelling of slogans and summaries. What was once a public conversation has become the bellow of a crowd: and the decisions of that crowd have become worse as a result.
Although life is short and the silence of the grave long, it is necessary to step into a representation of that silence from time to time, to sort out one’s ideas. There are of course many moments when people step aside from activity; one has such intermissions in stopping for a cup of tea, or having a drink with friends, or going on a walk. But this is pause, not silence; it is true silence which is lacking, the silence that is freedom from being harangued.
Some might ask, “What is wrong with relying on intuition or emotion to make one’s decisions?” Perhaps those who do so have succeeded in achieving an internal silence, a way of shutting out the hubbub of others’ opinions, and letting what they truly feel take over. Is there not something more authentic about that?
Well: it depends. There is a spectrum from going with whatever the impulse of the moment dictates to the Aristotelian idea of educating the emotions, forming rational habits of mind on which one can draw when faced with a dilemma or a choice. The entire process of formal and informal education is precisely aimed at cultivating the motivating forces in our character—our emotions—so that they do not produce crude and ill-judged outcomes, but ones that are consistent with a developed character and a perceptive mind.
That sounds high-minded, granted; but imagine a community of neighbours whose approach to each other and their common causes is premised on that ideal. All the thinkers who have rightly placed value on the demos as the unit of authority in our social and political arrangements have noted that the best situation is one in which each member is such a person. It would be a mistake to think that no community has ever approximated to that ideal; clubs, colleges, teams and the like, can manage it, even if they can also exemplify the worst of what can go wrong when people fall out. But it is the larger society—the state; the convocation of the enfranchised—where this ideal most needs to be approached. And that is where, alas, it too rarely is approached: because it is at this level that the hubbub prevents it. So, here is an idea: there should be holidays from news and opinion, especially when such holidays might be most valuable: for a chief example, in the week before an electorate goes to the polls.