Noise as a Fundamental Obstacle to Learning
Let me go on record and acknowledge that I truly understand that while getting good enough information for learning is fairly easy, getting the “BEST” information for learning is not so easy.
The reason is “Noise.”
There are a number of environmental and biological causes of noise. The biological sources of noise originate from the reality that our senses are imperfect and our brain can play tricks on us. The environmental obstacles originate from the reality that the information we need may be unavailable, unreliable, muffled, or incomprehensible.
Of the two types of noise, the biological sources of noise are the more dangerous and insidious because they’re very subtle, exceptionally hard to detect, often applied unconsciously, and even once identified, are hard to overcome.
It’s important to understand that these biological sources of noise are not only in you, but in me, in your friends, family, co-workers, politicians, scientists, everyone. In fact, to a greater or lesser extent we all face the same biological sources of noise.
The reality that we all share pretty much the same sources of noise is critical to understand. Since we all face the same obstacles, understanding your own obstacles will help you understand the obstacles others around you face. My thinking is that understanding these obstacles will help you develop skills to overcome not only your own obstacles, but might help you help those around you to overcome their own obstacles.
At its heart, this is what drives my search for effective learning tools. In my efforts to make better decisions, I’ve had to try to overcome my own environmental and biological obstacles to learning.
Having said all that let me summarize a bit before I go on. As with pretty much everything, I believe that the more you understand the obstacles in front of you, the better chance you have of either overcoming or avoiding them. What I’m offering here are specific ways to either overcome the information obstacles completely or to at least lessen the obstacle’s negative influences.
I want to be perfectly clear; I’ve not yet found a “magic bullet,” that will instantaneously solve all my learning problems.
I still try to learn everyday. I fall back on the saying that if it were easy everyone would do it. But, while I’m the first to acknowledge that it’s unquestioningly difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome ALL the obstacles, I can tell you that it’s fairly easy to overcome some of the key obstacles to getting the best information and as a result greatly improve your decision making. Think of it like picking fruit. Sure some of the fruit is on top of the tree and hard to get, but there is always “low hanging fruit” that is fairly easy to get. In fact, some fruit is on the ground and all you have to do it pick it up. So too with overcoming information obstacles! While some obstacles may be difficult to overcome, there are many that are easy.
The critical point I’m trying to make is that you can either fold your tent and run away or you can fight to overcome the obstacles. Perhaps the act of fighting, in and of itself, will help you overcome the some of the obstacles. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.”
I’m very anxious to get to the specific skills I think you need to help you get better information. But before I do, I think it would help if I explained, in as much detail as I can, some of the obstacles to gathering good information.
You are of course welcome to simply jump to the skills section. In fact, you may want to go to that section first and then come back to this section latter.
Environmental Sources of Noise
The term “Noise” is actually a communication term and I talked earlier. It means any unwanted sound. But in the context I’m using here “noise” means anything that blocks, distorts, changes, or in any way interferes with learning.
While I’m going to talk about some specific sources of noise, an easy thing to do is to simply use the term “noise” as shorthand for anything that prevents you from learning. You could simply say that our biological and environmental information processing systems are full of “noise.”
By simply accepting that we use “noisy” systems and compensating for it, you can improve your learning. However, the problem with using the term noise that way is that it is not really actionable. It’s way too high level. We need much more detail.
The better you understand where the noise comes from, the better you will be at building systems to overcome the specific noise that’s preventing you from getting the best information.
The best example I can think of here is Noise Cancelling headphones or “White Noise Systems” in office buildings. Both of these systems reduce unwanted and distracting sounds (and remember our definition of “noise” is any unwanted sound) by figuring out what the unwanted noise is and creating “anti-noise.”  Noise-Cancelling headphones use the physics of sound waves to “cancel” out the bad noise.
The point here is that if your goal is to design Noise Canceling headphones then you need to understand as much as possible about the physics of sound and the biology of hearing. The more you understand these fundamentals the better you will be at achieving your goal.
So applying this Noise Cancelling Headphone example to getting good information , my goal in this Chapter is to present you with ways to reduce the “information noise” we naturally encounter as we try to get good information.
Wouldn’t it be great if you had the best information handed to you every time you needed to make a decision? Wouldn’t it be great if there is a “The Best Information Hot Line” you could call or a “Best Information Web Site” you could go to? Well, sorry to say they don’t exist.
The reality is that to get information at all we usually have to rely on others to get the information for us. Unfortunately, however, there are huge potential obstacles to getting good information from others.
Here is a list of three of the most important obstacles we face when getting information from others:
- The information they provide could be wrong
- The information is not in a form we can use
- The information is too early or too late
The Source of the Information is wrong
As I said before, making a decision is based on knowing the information you are using is correct. However, knowing something is correct is not always easy.
We get information in two ways; we get it ourselves via direct measurement or we get if from someone else. When we get information from someone else we need to be careful because that information could be wrong.
Broadly speaking there are two categories of wrong information coming from someone else:
- The source intended to provide accurate information but did not.
- The source had no intention of providing accurate information; they intentionally lie.
The source of the information has an agenda that runs counter to your agenda When I hear a politician provide information I don’t trust them.
There is little you can do to change this situation. There is nothing you can do if the source is lying intentionally or thinks they are right, but is not. All you can do is try to understand what the motivation of the source is and react accordingly.
Perhaps the best way around this obstacle is to use the Ronald Reagan quote, “Trust, but verify.” If it is important, then you might want to double check.
The Information is not in a form we can Use
There are many decisions I have to make that I just cannot figure out the information. For example, I have to buy a big screen TV. There is plasma, LCD, 3D, and all sorts of other stuff that I just do not understand enough to make a good decision.
It’s not uncommon to get information that we just are not trained to understand. Our auto mechanic tells us about double overhead cams. Our doctor tells us about a sarcoma. Our computer geek tells us about registry errors.
There are two ways around this obstacle. First, you might want to enlist a “translator.” In this case a translator would translate the information that is in a form you cannot use into a form you can use. Or, the second way would be to learn to translate the information yourself. Which one of the two you use would depend on any number of things. For example, is this a onetime event? If it is a onetime event then a translator might be the best solution. However, if it is a recurring event than perhaps you should learn the translate it yourself, so you do not have to rely on a translator every time you get into the situation where the information you need is not in the form you can use.
Personally, I always try to learn it myself first because I love learning. But, I get so busy I often make the decision that learning to translate the information will not be the best use of my limited available time. In that case I simply hire a translator.
Here is the perfect example. Take a look at the x-ray below.
There is information there for sure. But it is in a form I cannot understand. Now, I could go to medical school and learn to read x-rays. Or I could hire a doctor to translate that information for me. Personally I find hiring a doctor is the most effective use of my time.
Now, this is very important. Let’s go back to the point about the source of the information being wrong. There is a great likelihood that the doctor translating this x-ray for me could be wrong. It happens all the time. So, using the “trust, but verify” approach, I might want to get a second opinion. Or I might want to do my own research.
When a decision is critical and I have to rely on the translator, I will often assume that the translator could make a mistake (either intentionally or unintentionally) and so I will check, double check, and triple check the translation. I’ve had situations where the translator is insulted that I would not trust them, but, I tell them I’m sorry, getting the best information is more important than hurting someone’s feelings. And, frankly, I will avoid translators that don’t want me to check their work because if they are any good, they know they are right and are not worried about anyone checking them.
The information is either too early or too late
It’s said, “timing is everything.” So to with information. Getting the information when we need it is critical. There is not much you can do for information that is too late. But we can store information that is too early.
The problem, of course, with storing information for later use is being able to retrieve it when you actually need it. Fortunately, context sensitive databases and digital libraries have greatly improved our ability to retrieve stored information.
I would love to go into a lot more detail on this subject, but I think you get the point and think we should move on.
Biological Obstacles to Getting Good Information
We have some major biological obstacles standing in our way of getting good information. Our senses are limited and, more importantly, our brain plays major tricks on us.
There are three sayings that apply here:
- “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
- Measure twice – cut once
- Trust but Verify
What these sayings tell me is that people have long recognized that we can easily be wrong in our efforts to get information and that a key skill to make sure we are not wrong is to check, verify, confirm, double check, and authenticate everything.
I heard of a guy that was getting a hip replacement. He wrote on his good hip in big letters, “WRONG HIP.” He did this because he heard of cases of doctors making mistakes and replacing the wrong hip on someone.
Here is another example. In 1999 there was a Mars explorer that crashed because one rocket scientist used feet and another rocket scientist used meters. As a result wrong calculations were entered into the guidance system. Rocket scientists often double, triple, quadruple check their calculations when programming a rocket. The risk is just too great. But they still make mistakes.
Clearly mistakes happen. Often times we can just laugh at our mistakes and move on. But sometimes, depending on the situation, an information mistake could have devastating results.
Perception and Selective Perception
We receive huge amounts of information as we move through the world. And as I described earlier, our brain cannot possibly handle all that information effectively. So it combines, filters, and modifies the stimulus it receives into broad generalizations, stereotypes, frames of reference, and assumptions.
We are wired to match our perceptions to patterns we’ve previously established in our brains. Apparently, evolution has come to the conclusion that this is the best way to successfully move through our daily life. Apparently, among our cave dwelling ancestors, the ones that were best able to quickly match current threats and opportunities with previous experiences survived to reproduce better than those that didn’t. Apparently, it is better to think there was a tiger in the bushes and run away when there was no tiger, then to not run away when there was in fact a tiger. In other words, evolution has taught us to err on the side of caution.
But, all that filtering, stereotyping, and generalizing is a huge double edge sword. On one hand it’s great for quickly coming to conclusions. But on the other hand it’s a barrier to evaluating new situations. And, as I talked about earlier, in reality, every situation is a new situation.
I really want to talk about “Selective Perception” but before I talk about “selective” perception, I want to I want to briefly remind you of the discussion on perception we had in the last Chapter on Communication.
Encarta defines perception as, “the process of using the senses to acquire information about the surrounding environment and situation.” Remember when I talked about the senses and how the brain processes information. One of the key points I made was the senses and the brain use an electrochemical process that is subject to all kinds of errors, both intentional – as in when we put still images together to see a movie – and unintentional – as in an optical illusion.
Perception is a two-step process; reception and interruption.
- Step one, the reception step, is pretty straight forward. Our perceptual organs are stimulated by some event – light wave, sound waves, touch, taste, or smell. They then generate an electrochemical signal that is sent to the brain.
- Step two, the interpretation step, is the most intricate step. This is the brain interrupting the signals from our senses and either using those signals right away, as in a reflex movement, or storing them for future use, as you are doing reading this.
Not to sound like a broken record but this is important. Because perception relies on the electrochemical process, it is subject to the variations inherent in our biology and environment. Things like being tired, what you are eating or drinking, or smoking can all influence the specific mix of neurotransmitters. And the mix of neurotransmitters will greatly influence both the reception of stimulus but more importantly the way the brain interrupts the signals sent it.
The result of this is that no two people will perceive in the same way. And it is very likely that you will not perceive in the same way one moment to the next.
Of the two steps, the interpretation step is most likely to get in the way of getting good information. And this is where “Selective Perception” fits in.
If I may, let me reference back to Admiral Stockdale, where he talked about confronting the brutal facts of your current reality. Well, here is the first brutal fact you need to understand; everyone, including you, uses “Selective Perception.” 
We use Selective perception as a survival technique. Without selective perception, we would be completely overwhelmed with stimulus. Selective Perception allows us to filter out information we don’t need. However, selective perception is also quite insidious, because we will ignore things that are incongruent with our existing values and beliefs. This then prevents us from making the best decisions. Selective Perception is an obstacle because it prevents us from seeing reality. We see what we want to see, not what we should see.
We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we want them to be.
It is impossible to pay attention to everything. Our mind has figured out that if it only selects the things that important we will have a better chance of surviving. So in order to make sense of the world we categorize and filter the stimulus that we perceive. Selective Perception describes how we categorize and filter.
Now, I want you to reference back to the discussion I had in Chapter 1 about Drew Weston and his research. Remember that Weston found a biochemical cause for a resistance to change. Remember he used fMRI to study the brains of people making decisions and found that we actually get a chemical “rush” from ignoring information that’s contrary to their point of view. This process is broadly called selective perception, but it is known by other names, my favorite being, “Confirmation Bias.”
I’ll talk more about biases a bit later, but for now, the key difference between Selective Perception and other forms of bias that I want you to pay attention to, is that Selective Perception is unconscious. It happens without you even knowing about it. And, because it’s unconscious it is very difficult to overcome.
There is an old saying in business; “An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance.” This is based on the belief that perceptions are more important than the reality.
Let me offer an example I saw the other night. It was a taste test. Testers were given salads from a fast food restaurant. They were told it was from a fast food restaurant. They judged the salads as poor in quality and high in fat. Then other testers were given the same salad, but told it was from a health food store. They rated the salad high in quality and low in fat.
Another good example of Selective Perception is the game of “telephone” where one person tells a story to another and they then tell it to another and so on. It’s great fun to compare the original story with the one at the end.
There are three main ways we apply Selective Perception:
- Selective attention – Paying attention to specific stimulus
- Selective distortion – Remembering things differently than how they occurred
- Selective Recall – Only remembering the things that confirm our existing beliefs
The key is to remember that we all use Selective Perception; so don’t assume what you see is really what is.
Biased thinking is a bit different from selective perception. The concept of selective perception is it happens unconsciously, whereas the concept of biased thinking is it happens consciously.
The point here is that while it’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to prevent yourself from selective perception – you do it, I do it, everyone does it – it’s much easier to prevent yourself from biased thinking.
There are many types of bias thinking that I could go over. However, of all of them Confirmation Bias is the worst.
“Confirmation Bias” refers to the situation where you focus on “confirming” bits of information and filter-out “non-confirming” information.
Here are some examples of others views on this. I think these confirm my point, but I could be using conformation bias, so you be the judge.
Let’s say you think BMW is the best car ever made, you would tend to see only the reports that say BMW is the best care ever made. And if you saw a report that said Lexus was the best car ever made, you would either ignore it or find reasons to discredit it.
If our beliefs are based on verifiable facts and valid experiments, like the fact that water is made up of 2 parts of Hydrogen and one part water (H2O) and this is proven by an electrolis experiment, then the tendency to pay more attention to data that fits that model will not lead us too far off course. However, you need to understand that even this might be a risk. Many commonly held beliefs, based on the best information of the time, were in fact wrong. Beliefs like the earth is flat or horses always have at least one foot on the ground when they run were widely held beliefs until new information proved them wrong.
The point is that you need to make sure you understand that there is a bright line between reasonableness and closed mindedness.
But don’t just take my word for this. There have been numerous studies to confirm this. What I’m saying is that it’s a biological fact that we all tend to give more attention and credence to information that supports our beliefs. We all do it. We all do it all the time. You do it. I do it. Everyone does it. In essence we are “addicted” to our own beliefs in the same way a heroin addict is addicted to heroin.
Confirmation Bias is not the only form of biases we use. Here is a short list I found of some other biases.
- Anchoring – Giving disproportionate weight to the first information you receive.
- Status quo – Favoring alternatives that perpetuate the existing situation
- Sunk Costs – Making choices in a way that justifies past, flawed choices
- Confirming evidence – Seeking information that supports your existing point of view
- Framing – Structuring the situation in ways that favor one solution over another
- Estimating and forecasting – Being overly influenced by vivid memories when estimating
- Overconfidence – Not being honest about our abilities
- Over Cautiousness – Too much prudence or too much fear of failure
- Recallability – The risk of being influenced by what is top of mind or what is easily recalled.
What is actionable here is that you need to understand that in order to get good information you need to overcome the obstacle of only looking at information that confirms your existing beliefs, because your existing beliefs can be wrong.
Skills Required to Overcome the Obstacles to Getting Good Information
What I present here is intended to be simply an overview of some of the key skills required. I am preparing another book with more in-depth explanations and exercises that will help you hone these skills.
Skill #1 – Measure Twice – Cut Once. Check, verify, recheck, confirm.
There is an old saying in carpentry; Measure twice – Cut once. When making any decision your first step is to gather information. But, gathering information is only half the battle. The other half is to gather useful and accurate information.
When you’re in bed in the morning and your decision to get up is in front of you, your first step is to gather information. You need to look at a clock and see what time it is. You need to think about what you have to do for the day. When deciding what to wear you need to gather information like what you plan to do today & what you have that’s clean.
Often times gathering information is very easy. If Iwanted to go to a movie I would either, drive by the theater to see the times, check the Internet, or look in the paper. Let’s say I wanted to know how much money I had to spend on food. I’d probably look in my check book, or go online to check my bank account, or I’d just know how much you have because I just balanced my checkbook.
Let’s say I want to decide what to order at a restaurant. Gathering information is easy, I’d simply look at the menu. Menus are designed to provide all the information I might need to choose something. But, perhaps I still have some question so I’d ask the waiter. I might want to know if the fish is fresh or if I could substitute the sweet potato for the baked potato. In all those cases, gathering information was easy.
Unfortunately, there are many times when gathering the best information is not easy. And, also unfortunately, though fairly understandably, often, the times that gathering the best information is not easy are also the times you need it the most. Let’s say you hear a rattle in the car. You need to know what’s causing the rattle, how much will it cost to fix, and where’s the best place to get it fixed. All those questions are hard to answer. You might not know what the rattle is. And even if you did, you need to find a mechanic you can trust.
There are two broad ways to you gather information; you personally gather all of it yourself or someone else gathers some of it and gives it to you. Clearly you have much more control over the information you personally gather. But in our complex world you will rarely find a situation where you can gather all the information you need to make a decision. In today’s world we almost always rely on others to provide some, if not all, the information we need.
There is some information we get from others that we take for granted is accurate, like the time a plane, train, or bus is scheduled to leave and arrive. Or the ingredients in a product. Or a price of a stock listed in the paper. That’s not to say that any of these things are always right and are never wrong. It’s up to you to determine what is the consequence of them being wrong. If the consequence is significant, then it is imperative that you get second and third opinions.
Again, “trust but verify.”
But this is not to say that just because someone else gathers it, it’s better or worse than if you gather it. In fact, sometimes you can get better information from someone else than you could get yourself. The doctor is a great example. I can take my own blood pressure, but is it probably better when the doctor gathers that information.
In the section on learning I said honesty was critical, well, honesty is critical here too. Honestly evaluating your own skill at gathering information yourself is essential to getting the best information. You need to know when it’s best to gather information yourself and when it’s best to have someone help.
Let me use some examples;
- Example 1 – Medical information. In order to stay healthy we need to gather medical information. When you go to the Doctor she wants to know our blood pressure, temperature, blood chemistry and much more stuff doctors want to know.
- Example 2 – Fixing a rattle in your car. Cars are very completed and require expertise to know what a rattle is and how to fix it.
I see a difference between basic skills, like reading and listening and advanced skills like computer programming and reading an x-ray. Everyone should know how to read and listen. But how well you can read and listen sets apart those that are just good at information gathering and those that are the best at it.
Skill #2 – Apply the learning steps
I described these steps in Chapter 1. (You’ll see that I use this method to do a lot of things because I find that it works well for me.)
Much like a painter draws a rough outline of what they want to paint first then they go back and fill in the detail. This list is just the first step to getting good information. This is just a rough outline of what you need to do. In order to make these steps more actionable, you need to provide a lot more detail.