The Power of Keeping it Simple
how to think and make decisions self-help

Making everyday decisions seems easy enough. People know basic information about health and finances that they can use to inform their decision making, but new research from Stevens Institute of Technology suggests that too much knowledge can lead people to make worse decisions, pointing to a critical gap in our understanding of how new information interacts with prior knowledge and beliefs.

The work, led by Samantha Kleinberg, associate professor of computer science at Stevens, is helping reframe the idea of how we use the mountain of data extracted from artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms and how healthcare professionals and financial advisors present this new information to their patients and clients.

“Being accurate is not enough for information to be useful,” said Kleinberg.

“It’s assumed that AI and machine learning will uncover great information, we’ll give it to people and they’ll make good decisions.

“However, the basic point of the paper is that there is a step missing: we need to help people build upon what they already know and understand how they will use the new information.”

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Kleinberg and her team found that when people make decisions in novel scenarios, such as those including mind-reading aliens, they do very well on that problem.

“People are just focusing on what’s in the problem,” said Kleinberg. “They are not adding in all this extra stuff.”

However, when that problem, with the same causal structure, was replaced with information about finances and retirement, for example, people became less confident in their choices and made worse decisions, suggesting that their prior knowledge got in the way of choosing the best outcome.

Kleinberg said: “In situations where people do not have background knowledge, they become more confident with the new information and make better decisions.

“So there’s a big difference in how we interpret the information we are given and how it affects our decision making when it relates to things we already know vs. when it’s in a new or unfamiliar setting.”

Kleinberg cautions that the point of the paper is not that information is bad.

She argues only that in order to help people make better decisions, we need to better understand what people already know and tailor information based on that mental model.

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