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Why There’s Such a Thing as Too Much Data

Lately, our culture has become obsessed with the quantity and diversity of data we are able to acquire. From a theoretical perspective, this desire is the result of our previous experiences with data. With quantitative data available, we can make less biased, more meaningful conclusions (whether that’s about demographic behaviors, scientific models, or anything useful to any industry), and rest assured that those conclusions are based in a measurable reality, rather than in conjecture. It only makes sense that an increase in available data would lead to increasingly reliable, increasingly accurate conclusions. However, this may not always be the case.

The Rise of Demand for Data

Our interest has been driven by the exponential development of new technologies in two major ways.

First, the potential application and overall efficiency of data collection has grown due to more advanced tools and a greater availability of information online. Big data companies specialize in collecting massive amounts of data from various sources, while social media companies can form shockingly specific conclusions about their users based on their post and activity history.

Second, the availability of big data alone makes it more heavily demanded. This is mostly due to the competitive nature of marketing and company development; if a competitor has access to this large volume of data, we feel compelled to seek it for ourselves. If a competitor does not take advantage of this large volume of data and we do, we can gain the competitive edge.

Because of these reasons, more companies and more consumers are desperate to get their hands on more and more data, but that influx of available data might only serve to complicate our already muddled process of forming conclusions and making decisions.

Distorting Your Decision Making Skills

More data leads to more informed decisions. This is a logical statement. However, most psychological studies suggest that an overabundance of information can actually compromise our ability to make meaningful decisions. For example, in one study, two groups of people were presented with a scenario to approve or deny a mortgage loan. In one of the groups, participants were given an ambiguous scenario that was only clarified with specific information upon request, while in the other, participants were given more information outright. Nearly all of the participants who could request more information did so. Researchers found more than a 50 percent discrepancy in how each group reacted to the mortgage application, even though the scenarios ended up being identical.

These types of findings suggest that the human mind is wired to seek out as much information as possible, since uncertainty is uncomfortable. However, this leads to an overinflated importance of data, which distorts the types of decisions we make.

Forcing You to Rely Too Heavily on Data

When enough data is available, there’s another problem that occurs: we use the data, and nothing else, to make our decisions. While data is a powerful tool in forming conclusions and basing decisions on those conclusions, it also blinds us to other important factors. Our gut instincts, our qualitative understanding of the situation, and our lateral problem-solving skills are all important decision-making factors that can be neglected in the presence of an overabundance of data. Think of all the breakout successes you’ve encountered that weren’t supported by data—toys that seem too simple to catch on, movies that are too offbeat to seem mainstream, and hashtags that never seemed powerful enough to gain momentum, all somehow defying the odds. Data should be a factor in your decision making, not the only factor.

Forgetting Different Kinds of Data

When we have more objective data than we ever could have asked for, it’s easy to forget about the other types of data that can—and should—factor into our decision. For example, qualitative data, such as open-form responses on user surveys, can help shape our understanding of individual buyers within our pool, and can lead us to better understandings of outliers in the data pool. Experiential data, which boils down to your knowledge of the industry, can sometimes trump “objective” data, which could be biased in any number of ways. The best decisions are usually based on a culmination of different types of data and a bit of influence from our natural instincts.

Ultimately, data is a good thing and the fact that more data is available is a positive move for the future. However, more data isn’t always the answer to our problems, nor is an overabundance of data always a productive acquisition. There is such a thing as too much data, and if we allow this excess of data to distort our decision making, it’s going to do more harm than good. Feel free to acquire all the data you want for your business, but temper your expectations and never allow that data to be your only consideration.