The Great Social Equalizers: Data and Decision-Making
Updated: May 26, 2022
Social inequality stokes our passions. Fairness and justice are essential expectations for all humanity. In fact, upon performing a Google Scholar search, there are 1.8 million entries related to this topic. (1) This article explores unique approaches to inequality solutions. In today's fast-moving, data-rich world, we believe access to curated data and quality decision-making to be foundational for resolving social inequality challenges.
Researchers, policymakers, and media point to wealth and income as a demonstration of inequality. Differences between ethnic groups and other social groups are often shown highlighting inequality's core effects, both in terms of benefit and detriment. Causes of inequality vary. The following causes are polled from several sources (2):
There are certainly more causes and related nuances. We present these broad causes along a "level of control" spectrum (3). At opposite ends of the spectrum, the level of control is either:
An outside-in factor, generally initiated by the environment, or,
An inside-out factor, generally initiated by the individual.
These two categories are not mutually exclusive. As the graphic suggests, the two categories are better defined along a dynamic continuum than as a strict definition.
This article considers wealth and income as inequality's outcomes. We consider ethnic and related social groups as descriptive (or indicative) of inequality. The following are levels of control factor examples:
Outside-in | For example, we can protest potential inheritance inequity, we can work through legislative channels to prioritize changing inheritance tax, but it is the rule currently in place. Today, we have little individual influence over these factors.
Inside-out | For example, we can enhance our natural qualities by acquiring talent or by using tools to enhance our talent. Also, we can enhance our luck via preparation. The very fact you are reading this article enhances your ability to avoid inequality pitfalls! Today, we have substantial individual influence over these factors.
As a solution to resolve individual inequality and in the spirit of "focus on what you can control," this article emphasizes taking personal ownership and making the most of your success, given current environmental rules. We will discuss ways to improve your decision outcomes, regardless of the rules, and how this may benefit others. To be clear, improving the social rules defining our outside-in equality environment is certainly important. It is just not in scope for this article.
We will explore this inside-out-focused goal by turning to today's most important success differentiator:
--> The ability to curate data and make quality decisions.
Decision-making quality defines society's "have and have nots."
Our ability to learn is at the core of good decision-making. But why is this? What is so unique about people, learning, and decision-making? The answer is based on our evolution. We consider our learning ability based on two conflicting evolutionary realities:
Modern society has been evolving quickly. Our society's ability to increase what historian David Christian refers to as "Collective Learning" is occurring quickly. (4) Collective learning is the ability to share information so efficiently that the ideas of individuals can be stored within the collective memory of communities and can accumulate through generations. The Gutenberg press, invented around the 1440s, is considered one of the first significant collective learning advances. This enabled mass communication via books and newspapers. (5) In the last few decades, as consistent with Moore's Law and recent technology advances, humanity's collective learning ability has exploded.
- On the other hand -
Modern society’s members have been evolving very slowly. Our ability to evolve physically or mentally, especially via genetic mutation-based adaptation, is tied to Charles Darwin and related research. "Evolutionary Learning," also known as natural selection (6), is the process whereby organisms better adapt to their environment. Successfully adapting organisms tend to survive and produce more offspring. Evolutionary learning-based adaptations require multiple millennia to make significant physical or mental changes. Extinction may result when a species fails to adapt.
- The difference creates -
The evolution-based learning gap. In general, today, the big decision challenge is the tension between collective learning and evolutionary learning. More specifically, the tension is caused by the Evolution-based Learning Gap ("ELG"). That is the rate of change difference between collective learning as compared to our physical and mental ability to keep up via our much slower evolutionary learning. Paradoxically, the negative effect of the ELG increases as digital technology improvement accelerates. Via the internet and information technology, our ability to implement society's fertile collective learning ability is overwhelming our brain's ability to effectively process that collective learning. (7)
Data is exploding. We are regularly overwhelmed by society's data production volume and related data decisioning needs for the following two reasons:
1) It is hard to curate data. Data curation is like a "separating the wheat from the chaff” challenge. While data has been exploding, data quality has been declining just as rapidly (8). As wise poets teach us, despite being surrounded by something, does not mean we will benefit from it. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge writes "Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink." Today's corollary is:
Data, data, everywhere, whilst little wisdom to benefit.
In much of the developed world, the production and maintenance of data are largely at the discretion of commercial enterprises. Many large technology platform firms exploit the confusing data environment via machine learning algorithms. These algorithms are often targeting human emotion (via "likes" or other forms of engagement) and often at the expense of data quality. (9) This reality places a significant premium on an individual's ability to curate data. The societal need for information curation has recently transformed. This information curation transformation completely changes how we traditionally think about censorship. In the words of Sociologist Zeynep Tufecki (10):
"The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself."
To avoid modern censorship, we must actively curate our data.
2) It is hard to make a good decision. Once the curated data has been identified, then the challenge is making a good decision. Per the early evolutionary learning observation, our brains were not designed to handle today’s complex decisions. Our current neurological and evolution-based ability to effectively process decisions is lagging. Because of this evolutionary lag, our current decision-making ability is tuned to a MUCH simpler time. An earlier time when the hardest choice was a simple crop planting decision or similar tasks. Agriculture started about 12,000 years ago. This is relatively brief as to evolutionary time. The human brain, in terms of brain size, has not since changed significantly. (11)
Unfortunately, our brain's ability to handle today’s complex, multi-criteria, multi-alternative decisions has severely lagged our brain's capacity to process those decisions. Choice architect and psychologist Barry Schwartz sums it up well (12):
“Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”
Decision-making solutions as a social priority
Today and going forward, the difference between society's "have and have nots" will be defined by our ability to make regular, high-quality decisions. Our thesis is that life success results from an accumulation of mostly small, regular, and good decisions. Regardless of background or birth luck, we all have an opportunity to maximize our life success via improved decision-making. As discussed earlier, that success will be framed by our ability to curate information and by using decision tools to augment our brain's limited decision-making ability.
Also, to add complexity, the majority of those decisions have payoffs far in the future. Like an investment decision, a career decision, a college decision, or even a spouse decision. As such, in some cases, the decision-maker will not know the result of the decision for decades.
If "data is the new oil" (13) then decision-making results are the new data-enabled outcomes powered by our decision-augmented thinking.
Next, we will discuss solutions to help you make great decisions! We organize our solutions according to the two "data and decisioning" reasons mentioned earlier in this article, namely data curation and good decision-making.
1) A data curation approach (14) -
To begin, generally, it is important to be a curator of the data you accept to support your decisions. The following are data curation rules of thumb:
Be careful to choose quality, less biased data sources;
Even then, fact check with multiple sources;
Consider data source time-cycle length, generally the longer the better; and,
When possible, allow for time to permit emotion to pass when making an important decision.
The next graphic is a helpful framework when evaluating the curative quality of a particular data source. The graphic is simple and focuses on the information source bias and quality (or reliability) dimensions. While this graphic is focused on news sources, the bias and quality filters could be applied to most data sources. The actual information sources cited on the graphic likely change over time.
Tim Harford, in his 2021 book Data Detective, discusses the importance of the time cycle of curated data.
“Daily news always seems more informative than rolling news; weekly news is typically more informative than daily news. A book is often better still. Even within a daily or a weekly newspaper, I find myself preferring the slower-paced explanation and analysis rather than the breaking news.”
Personally, I have lengthened my time cycle to improve overall data curation. I consume high-quality weekly and monthly periodicals (for example, The Economist and Wired Magazine). I gave up my daily subscriptions and do not consider rolling news. Finally, long cycle books are the dominant source of all my curated data sources.
I am a big believer in paying for information. I want to make sure it is right and I want to reward those for making it right. Would you leave a restaurant without tipping the waiter? If you are not paying for information, I would be concerned about the conflict of interest and the motivations of those providing potentially non-curated data. As per one of my favorite quotes:
“If you are not paying for the product, YOU are the product.”
- this quote was mentioned in the 2020 documentary film, The Social Dilemma.
2) Good decision-making tools
As mentioned earlier, our own neurobiology brings about today's more complex decision challenges. Our brains are simply not engineered for the more complex multi-criteria, multi-alternative decisions. Complex life decisions include:
Weddings and other important events
Career / jobs
And many, many others
Having a tool to help with these decisions is incredibly important. For some, your "decision tool" may mean reaching out to trusted sources, family members, or friends. Unfortunately, your personal network may not include the right experts, or, you likely need help to collect and interpret that expertise. Regardless of the availability of your network, using objective decision tools is a decision-making best practice. In the context of social equality, decision-making tools can be a great equalizer.
Definitive Choice is a smartphone app, providing a straightforward user experience and is backed by time-tested decision science algorithms. It uses a proprietary "Decision 6(tm)" approach that organizes the criteria (what is important to you?) and alternatives (what are the choices?) in a series of bite-size ranking decisions. Since it is on your smartphone, you can use it while you are doing the research. It is like having a decision expert in your pocket. The results dashboard provides a rank-ordered list of "best choices," tailored to your preferences.
Also, Definitive Choice comes pre-loaded with many templates. You will want to customize your own criteria, but the preloaded templates provide a nice starting point.
I have found decision solutions like Definitive Choice to be very helpful. With a little practice, it improves decision consistency (15), improves decision quality, helps organize key data to support the decision, and has helped me become a better decision-maker.
Good decision-making is fundamental to resolving inequality challenges. Some of our social rules may cause inequality. Be that as it may, we all may take personal ownership for our own decision-making-based success. We believe active data curation and the use of decision-making tools is fundamental to our decision-making-based success.
(1) In Google Scholar, at the time of this search, there were 1.8 million articles for the search term "income and wealth inequality." One of my favorite sources is Pew Research.
(2) Firebaugh. "The Trend in Between-Nation Income Inequality." Annual Review of Sociology, 2000
Mullahy, Robert, and Wolfe. "Health, Income, and Inequality." Russell Sage Foundation Working Paper Series. 2003
Domhoff. Who Rules America? Power and Politics. 1967
Hulett, Resolving Lending Bias - a proposal to improve credit decisions with more accurate credit data, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
(3) Hulett, Success Pillars - a life journey foundation, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
(4) Christian. Origin Story, 2018
(5) Silver, The Signal and the Noise, 2012
(6) Darwin, Origin Of Species, 1859
There is a paradoxical concern that as the human species increases resilience, the human species ability to evolve is decreasing.
See Hulett, Navigating the four scales of resilience, 11/14/20 note, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
(7) In his book Fooled By Randomness, NN Taleb writes:
“Much of our problem comes from the fact that we have evolved out of such a habitat faster, much faster, than our genes. Even worse, our genes have not changed at all.”
Also, In his book The Signal and the Noise, Silver writes:
“We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process.”
(8) Redman, Seizing Opportunity in Data Quality, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2017.
To put a finer point on the data problem, see the topic summary:
Hulett, The Tragedy of Big Data, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
"The Tragedy of Big Data. The more variables, the more correlations that can show significance in the hands of a 'skilled' researcher. Falsity grows faster than information; it is nonlinear (convex) with respect to data. The inverse should be true, that valid correlations grow slower, relative to total observations. Thus, a concave function."
(9) Hulett, Beyond content moderation - implementing algorithm standards and maintaining free speech, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
(10) Pearce, Zeynep Tufekci on tech's powers and perils for democracy, Johns Hopkins University HUB, 2019
(11) Brain size from the Smithsonian Institute, https://humanorigins.si.edu/human-characteristics/brains
(12) Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice, 2004
(13) In 2006, Clive Humby coined the phrase “Data is the new oil.”
Arthur, Tech giants may be huge, but nothing matches big data. The Guardian, 2013
(14) Hulett, Information curation in a world drowning in data noise, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
(15) Decision consistency is a significant topic. In general, noise and bias are primary challenges to gaining decision consistency and related quality. While bias is a concern, bias is actually easier to detect and manage. As I suggest at the beginning of this article, people naturally detect and correct bias. However, noise tends to be the "silent killer" to decision consistency and quality. For an excellent treatment of noise, please see:
Kahneman, Sibony, Sunstein, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, 2021