Has the Power of Choice Distorted Our Decision Making?

Sixty years ago, Newton Minow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously called television “a vast wasteland.” This was at a time when there were a total of three networks. Candid Camera host, Peter Funt, recently asked Mr. Minow about his thoughts on the seemingly unlimited choices now presently available.

“Fractionalization of the audience provides more choice,” he said, “but we pay a big price. Our country now is much more divided because we don’t share the same news or believe the same facts. I used to think that providing more choice was in the public interest. But I’m not sure today.”

In other words, part of society’s present polarization is being caused by a population that no longer shares common interests based on media. Thirty years ago, people watched The Tonlght Show, starring Johnny Carson. Then they discussed his monologue the next morning at the office. Now, on any given night, you can choose between more than a dozen late-night talk shows, all of which have hosts projecting partisan political viewpoints, something Johnny was careful not to do.

Another television phenomenon of thirty years ago was “Who killed JR?” on the night-time drama, Dallas. People spent weeks arguing about who pulled the trigger. Why, because millions were watching every Friday night. In essence, it created a sense of community. You could get on an elevator and ask the strangers next to you, “Who do you think shot J.R.?” and they would immediately get the reference. Today, there are so many choices, we have balkanized ourselves into micro affinity groups. The chance of an elevator stranger watching the same thing you did last night is remote. Besides, we don’t talk to strangers. We bury our heads in our smart phones.

This fractionalization is not limited to today’s media. The same thing is true with pretty much every product, topic or issue. As a result, we have not just become fractionalized, but hyper-fractionalized. Without shared experiences, it becomes so much easier to hide behind the beliefs with which we feel comfortable. We seek out others who share our beliefs and avoid those who might have a different point of view.

The problem with this, of course, is that when we all retreat to our individual corners, we lose the perspective to make truly informed decisions. This is reinforced by the highly partisan politicians, activists, media and colleagues who choose to press their beliefs on others without remaining open to alternative points of view. The best decision-makers accept that their beliefs are not the only ones out there. They ask questions, knowing that the answers or opinions they receive in response may not be to their liking. But they accept that colleagues, friends and strangers can have diverging beliefs without being wrong. Effective decision-making is the result of seeking out the best information, opening yourself to thoughtful discussion and acting, knowing that you might be proven wrong.

 

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