Is This Information Sufficiently Helpful?

In Cognitive Productivity I described several illusions and biases that interfere with our ability to leverage knowledge resources. The first set of illusions is to over-estimate or underestimate the “helpfulness” of a knowledge resources.

Illusions of Helpfulness of Information

Selecting the right resource to process is critical to the development of effectiveness. Unfortunately, it’s easy to be seduced by flawed information. If you put a document in the field of view of literate people, they can no more stop themselves from reading it than they can prevent themselves from parsing a grammatical sentence spoken to them. If they are effectant then their tendency to read is even stronger. As people age, experience distress, or miss out on sleep, they have even greater difficulty to inhibit and control autonomous tendencies (such as reading). Knowledge workers therefore chronically face a challenge, namely to assess the relevance of the information before them, and to decide whether, when and how to process it.

After processing information, we often conclude (or should conclude) that it was not worth the attention we gave it: We conclude that we experienced an “illusion of helpfulness of information”. To minimize opportunity cost, we must habitually assess the relevance of information we process, and respond accordingly. When we spend too much time skimming, or when we attend to low grade information, we miss out on important material or the opportunity to develop effectiveness from relevant, potent information. 

The opposite problem is to discount relevant and potent information. In The Mating Mind, Geoffrey Miller expounded arguably the most severe and widespread failure of scientists to adequately assess the caliber and potential of a theory. In 1871, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. For a century, biologists systematically criticized and rejected Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Since the 1990s, Darwin’s masterpiece has been the theoretical source of considerable research.

Clearly, one needs a cogent and salient understanding of what it means for information to be helpful. Chapter 11 of Cognitive Productivity proposes a new tetradic schema for assessing the helpfulness of knowledge resources in terms of their caliber, utility, potency and appeal. That’s the “CUPA” framework.

Other Information Processing Illusions

Cognitive Productivity also discusses illusions of comprehension, expected recall, and rationality. These information-processing illusions are among the most significant threats to one’s cognitive productivity.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity . Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. See About Me for more information.

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