Why and where do we look for information?

Dr. G Venkat Ram Reddy

July, 2020

The answer to the question 'What exactly is information?' varies depending on whom you ask. While the popular definition of information goes something like this: "facts provided or learned about something or someone," a formal definition is akin to this: "a mathematical quantity expressing the probability of occurrence of a particular sequence of symbols, impulses, etc. against that of alternative sequences. However, answers to questions such as 'Why do people look out for information' or 'What role does it play in people's lives?' are less perplexing. Fundamentally, we all search for information because it helps mitigate uncertainty (i.e., not knowing what's in-store) either entirely or reduces it to risk (i.e., having an inkling into what could be). For reasons primarily attributed to our ancestors' pastoral lives in the African Savannahs, human brains are wired to be highly sensitive to uncertainty. Our ancestors needed to be able to expect where they could get their next meal from, plan for an eventual escape from a predator, and ponder on how to overcome feelings in times of danger. Any inability to discern what the future holds on these counts could have diminished their chances of survival. From those times until this day, we continue to search for information to help ourselves and engage in actions, thoughts, and feelings we would like.

That brings us to the next question, ‘Where do we look out for the information? Although there are many sources we depend on for information, these sources could be bracketed into three categories: personal experience, the experience of related others, and the experience of unrelated others. Personal experience constitutes the total of all the information available to us from our past information search and processing. This is the source that we cannot do away with, even when we have to look out for other sources for additional information - ourselves are the necessary advisors. For the information beyond personal experience, we often seek the solace of known others such as friends and family. Our social worlds are our sources of free advice. However, in many circumstances, neither our personal experience nor our social networks could help us with the information we want. This is when we reach out to 'experts,' both human and machine, aka the paid advisors.

Think of a time when you feel sick. If the feeling were a familiar one, you would just take the medicine you did in the past. However, if the symptoms are different from the previous ailments, you might seek help from your family doctor. If they persist, he might recommend you to see an expert, or you might also look for further advice on the Mayo Clinic pages. And, that is how we look out for any information that we need.

Why it's good to know all this? For one, we now know how we spend much of our waking hours. Two, we could reflect upon the past to figure out whose advice worked and seek next time we are in a similar predicament.

Note: The article is a first of series of articles on the role of information in our everyday lives. The larger purpose is to lay out a series of observations on topics that matter to most of us and conclude with pointers to reflect upon. Please feel free to send in comments/questions on the observations/ideas put forth here at ram@iitj.ac.in

About the Author

Dr. G Venkat Ram Reddy is a faculty in the area of Human Capital & Organisational Dynamics at School of Management and Entrepreneurship, IIT Jodhpur.