Experience vs. Information, Part 2

I recently blogged about whether we form our opinions more from information than experience. The starting point was a passage in David McCullough‘s book The Great Bridge, and he was comparing modern Americans with our 19th-century counterparts.

I was interested not just as a historical comparison but because the information/experience question is compelling in its own right. Consider a doctor, for instance: as Jerome Groopman writes very well in How Doctors Think, the act of diagnosing a patient is a tricky blend of science (relying primarily on information) and art (relying primarily on experience).

Or pretend for a minute that you’re Manny Ramirez facing Mariano Rivera with an 0-2 count with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the A.L. Championship Series, and you know that Rivera throws a breaking pitch away in 80 percent of such instances — but you also know that he struck you out with a high fastball last night with the same count. (What with Manny being Manny, this may not be the best example.)

But rather than my speculation, let’s hear from someone who’s done some actual research on this question.

Greg Barron, an assistant professor in negotiation, organizations, and markets at the Harvard Business School, e-mailed in response to the earlier post to share with us “what we know so far” about “my favorite topic, decisions from experience.”

Here are Barron’s summaries of two papers he has co-authored. The first, published in Psychological Science, is called “Decisions From Experience and the Effect of Rare Events in Risky Choice.”

1. Decisions made from personal experience and those made from information (what we term “description”) are qualitatively different — in particular regarding rare, but important, events that are overweighted in information-based decisions (see Prospect Theory) but underweighted in decisions from experience. For example, consider G. Gigerenzer‘s observation that more people were killed in the increase in traffic accidents after 9/11 than were killed in the attacks themselves. Risk on the road is learned from experience, and is underweighted.

2. When people have both sources of information, description and personal experience, we find behavioral inertia for whatever information was encountered first. Thus, in the 80’s people who had been practicing unsafe sex for 30 years were not as impressed by the AIDS epidemic as today’s teenagers who are scared silly (despite the rate of HIV transmission with an actual AIDS partner being as low as 1/1000). More neat applications (ex. Vioxx) are in the paper.

Pete W

It seems that most of the comments above are in reply to the anecdotes and not the points they were supporting. I would consider less controversial anecdotes if the intent is to truly develop a conversation about Experience vs Information.

For the record, I think the two go hand-in-hand. Our goal is not to recreate the wheel, but to propel it forward. Information tells us where we've been, where we might go, and what to avoid, especially in fatal situations. Experience allows us to apply a weight to the credibility of the information.

Sometime we need to make mistakes (experience) to better understand the information. However, an experience only approach takes longer to learn and is less broad.


@ 2, Have you heard of Warren Buffet, he (and shareholders) invests based on reading the annual report and good management, not how the company has done for the past few years. Also after any mutual fund is the best, it can expect to have its three terrible years.

Mike M

@ #40 "The aids reference is horrific and moronic. I somehow lived through West Hollywood in the 80's"

I don't know the lifestyle you were living at the time, but the statistics given here should give you the "somehow" as to why you survived. I genuinely hope your kids stay safe, but I as an individual I choose to make my decisions based on as much information as currently available. Please don't critize those who are trying to provide it.

When it comes to STDs, I'd prefer to stick to information over experience.

Matt Birchall

Experience is commonly the result of information, previously acquired, that has been tested by your own experiments.
Given a predicament, about what to do next, it becomes frugal to use experience rather than gather and analyse (perhaps incorrectly) new data from sources that may be untrustworthy.
If it is important to 'do stuff' rather than analyse (until the cows come home) it is easy to see the value of experience.


@ Jesse Davis
Obviously, there can be no AIDS epidemic, because there is no cure we aren't all dead. For those who like numbers, try these:

HIV positive Americans: 1,112,000
Eligible for antiretroviral (ARV) therapy: 480,000
Actually on ARV: 268,000
Progression from HIV to AIDS: 10 years

Using this information, calculate the average number of AIDS deaths/year (assuming people die shortly after getting full-blown AIDS). Now go check the actual statistics. Then scratch your head.

Elizabeth Gray

What about sensational newspaper information vs no experience? We fear nuclear power because of reports about 3-mile island(no meltdown and no deaths), Chernobyl(fewer deaths than in many mining accidents), and Hiroshoma (horrible, but a bomb, not power plant). This information is way overweighted when you ask the question compared to what? According to the Beir VII report living next to a COAL-FIRED power plant for 78 years is 2 to three times more dangerous than living next to a nuclear plant for the same amount of time. Exposure to the nuclear-fuel cycle is 10,000 times safer than getting a CT scan every year. But people in this country are adamantly opposed to nuclear power because they respond to emotional information instead of accurate information. Most of us have no experience with nuclear plants per se. The Europeans have lots of experience with them are feel quite safe. Note that other arguments against nuclear power also fall by the wayside when hard data about real effects are considered (e.g. storage is not a problem- plenty of space for hundreds of years, and 60% of spent fuel rods are recycleable.)

I think the sensational information trumps accurate information, even when there is no experience to give a perspective.



I'd just like to point out, and yes no one cares, that Mariano Rivera throws one pitch and one pitch only. The cut fastball. So, Manny knows what's coming, he just won't hit it.

eli baker

i can only repeat the observation of Tolman, a famous psychologist.

"Students are not people."


Often, experience represents better DATA:
reported data is often averaged over large populations; experience is likely reported for people like you.

Thus, statistics computed from twenty samples that you personally selected as relevant to you may be better than average over a million of people.

This is especially true, when alternative include your own behavior that you can control. For example, many child vaccination recommendations are based on the statistics: shot all vaccines at once, otherwise the patient may not come again - and it will save $50/person. Of course, you'll be better off coming 3 times and paying $50.


One clarification: the post says "that more people were killed in the increase in traffic accidents after 9/11 than were killed in the attacks themselves."

Gigerenzer showed an increase of about 350 traffic deaths. That was more than the 266 killed aboard the four planes, not more than were killed in the attacks overall.

Michael F. Martin


Even snopes isn't infallible. I found a mistake in their entry on daylight savings time. They claim farmers are stupid for not milking their cows at the same time despite the time change. But this is obviously wrong because dairies operate on a 24 hour per day schedule, and milking them at the same absolute time regardless of how the hour is labeled will make shipments either early or late.


Thomas B.

Even faster, on the 693rd day, the average tips over the 50% mark. That's less than 2 years.

On the upside, you've just had sex every day for two years.


Information does not have the detail of experience. Therefore when you make decision, experience counts much more.

David Pearson

For #13 (OldBob), experience might suggest the direction of the data.


So if the chance of an HIV carrier passing it on is 1 in 1,000, then if he/she and his/her partner have sex once a day, the “clean” partner can expect to be infected–on the average–within three years.

This seems intuitively true, but isn't. The formula is 1 - ( 999/1000 ) to the x power = .50. In other words, x is the number times one has sex with an HIV carrier. When that formula reaches .50, then it means that that's the average number of times for the population of people who engage in the same behavior. There will be a range of number of times around that number for everyone who does so. I don't have a computer to figure this out. Maybe somebody else does.

Janice D

I find the article an interesting opportunity to question how we make decisions, especially whether or not they are rational or irrational, based on education or the learned experiences that feed our "Blink" responses to old and new information.

As a culture most of us find it expedient to rely on what we hear from our preferred information sources, accepting this as truth. But in today's media, economic and political environments, largely underwritten by special interests, sources are increasingly biased making it difficult to discern what is real education and what is simply brand marketing. Add to that our cultural propensity to defer to "experts," and we have a real disconnect between what we are being told and what we are experiencin and intuit as contrary information. Discourses surrounding public interests and the challenges we face as a nation are extremely limited today.

For example, today I listened to George Bush comment about the strength of our economy and the jobs market, which I saw as a not true marketing & PR response, not real information or "education" about how our economy is performing. Having recently visited my sister in England, my "real" experience of the value of the dollar and our economic strength suggests otherwise.

In business and government, not to mention our personal lives, I have noted there is a generally slow response to looking for and recognizing emerging patterns, "don't confuse me with the facts", that suggests we ought to change directions. Even when it's clear that we personally, or a business or institution is failing, we hold on to the idea rather than the reality.

As a people, we prefer, defer and respond to emotional constructs of reality, believing what the experts say, and then mimicing what we hear. We don't have the energy, time or inclination to spend our precious time and resources to check the confusing truths and facts we read.

In closing, we must use both faculties - reason and experience - and make judgements, to the best of our abilites - in accordance with our personal integrity.

Using only reason or experience, and failing to look for contrary facts to our experience or beliefs, makes us complicit in denying our own rational experiences as having a logical merit and view point, and an ability to bring about the change and hope most of us feel is necessary to maintaine our status as a "country of light" for the world.


David Smith

So if the chance of an HIV carrier passing it on is 1 in 1,000, then if he/she and his/her partner have sex once a day, the "clean" partner can expect to be infected--on the average--within three years.

Michael F. Martin

@John, Boston

I think the differences between individual minds and institutional visions are not as different as you suggest. Although the building blocks are obviously quite different, the structures formed by those building blocks are actually quite similar. In particular, the fluctuations in supply and demand in markets, and the cross-elasticities that characterize the relationships between those fluctuations, are not altogether different between the fluctuations of electrical impulses within the neural networks inside your brain. Sometimes one neuron is really, really important. Sometimes not.


The splendid truth about action are merely guides, which the healthy human being takes into account while assessing all variables in a multidimensional existence. We are the success or failure depending on the perspective of assessment by whatever, say, the NYTimes. Humans however learn by constructing their own instruction, newspaper don't, -they operate on market hits. The President speaks to the news, but soon the news be irrevelent future Presidents. The human body will rule.


What about shared experience? I have access not only to my experience, but also to that of my extended family and friends irl, as well as to the experience recorded in various forms of literature.

Similarly, information has various levels of validity. It takes experience to decide which information to trust. Eg: not emails forwarded from people I trust, but yes snopes.com.