Information intoxication

The Philosopher Developer

October 18, 2018

I still remember the last time I got hopelessly inebriated. It wasn't as long ago as I'd like to admit. But it was a turning point for me, a wake-up call to a grown man who shouldn't be letting that happen. The details of the story aren't really important, except for one: it started with the all-too-familiar mistake of drinking without having eaten dinner.

Anyone who's made this mistake understands the ramifications. When your stomach is empty, a little bit of alcohol has much more of an impact than after you've had a full meal1. As a result it's very easy to get drunk without meaning to when you haven't eaten recently.

The relationship between food and alcohol in the context I'm describing is one of proportionality. Ideally a small amount of alcohol is preceded by a much larger amount of food. The alcohol provides a pleasant buzz, while the food acts as a buffer, protecting against some of the negative effects of the alcohol.

I have noticed that a similar relationship exists between what I'll call positive and negative information. Positive information is what you know about someone or something that puts them in a positive light. For example, if my neighbor does me a favor—say, he watched my dog for me while I was out of town—that makes me like him. If he does something harmful—maybe he borrowed one of my tools and never game it back—that might make me like him less.

Negative information tends to have a disproportionately large impact on your perception of someone compared to positive information. A larger cache of positive information is required to absorb it and dull its effects, just like food is needed to absorb alcohol.

Here's an example. Suppose your friend tells you a story that someone rear-ended them at a red light and then drove away—a hit and run. Your initial reaction would probably be What a scumbag! Even more so if your friend were hurt, physically or financially, from the incident. Now suppose that later on, you happen to meet someone at a party, and you find that they're nice to talk to and you get along well. But then you discover that this was the same person who drove off after hitting your friend's car. I think most of us in this situation would turn on a dime and say, "You're that scumbag!" (Or at least we would think it.)

Now imagine that, instead, it was your friend in the first place who hit another person's car and drove away. Or your brother or sister. Or your partner or spouse. We're all calibrated a bit differently, so I'm not sure where your line is; but I feel confident we all have someone in our lives for whom, upon hearing a story like that, our first reaction wouldn't be You scumbag; it'd be more like Why did you do that? I know you're not a bad person, so there must be some explanation.

In this second scenario the key difference is that we would have enough positive information—from this person being our friend, or sibling, or partner/spouse—to absorb the negative. The strongest effect of that negative information, which for someone else might fall anywhere from a harsh judgment to downright loathing, would be weakened.

You might relate to this. I've seen the manifestation of this phenomenon in my own life when talking to friends about someone they don't know. For example, let's say I have a friend name Phil. We are good friends, but Phil is a loose cannon (someone who acts impulsively). While Phil and I have plenty of good and bad experiences together, the ones that make the most entertaining stories are the ones involving Phil being a loose cannon and getting us both into trouble.

To a friend who doesn't know Phil personally, the stories I tell might make him seem like a pretty bad dude. Eventually they might say something to me like, "Why are you even friends with Phil? He sounds like a total jerk." What I haven't taken into account in this scenario is that my friend doesn't know Phil, so they don't have the warehouse of positive information (i.e. our meaningful and worthwhile experiences together as friends) that, for me, offset all the negative information. They are "drunk" on negative information about Phil. They never ate dinner.

As the manager of a team in an office that's two time zones away from my boss and the rest of the team's leadership, this is incredibly important to me. I need to recognize how critical it is to supply those in my company's other offices with a steady diet of positive information; otherwise minor screw-ups or snarky comments that make their way to those offices can become amplified and present a distorted picture of reality.

It's also incredibly important for leaders of distributed teams in general to understand this: if you manage a team that's far away from you—whether literally or figuratively2—know that having limited information may make you overly sensitive to the negative, and do you what you can to compensate for that.

But the lesson also applies to everyday life. To bring it back to the analogy: if you find yourself enjoying a "drink" of negative information, whether it be gossip, a juicy story, or something else, think to yourself, Have I eaten dinner? Do you have enough positive information to absorb the negative? If not, maybe it's time to stop for a bite to eat.

  1. I assume it has something to do with the food in your body "absorbing" the alcohol; at least, that's how we generally talk about it, though I have no real idea what's happening on a physiological level. 

  2. Maybe they're in the same town as you but you work in different buildings and don't see one another often.