Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Information Sharing and Stress

Humans like to communicate.  I believe we like to share information, insight and stories, especially with people who we love and trust.

We have better tools than ever to do it, but, there is a flip side to this ease.

I find that more and more, there are pieces of information which one is not supposed to disseminate.  The most striking instance of this restriction is the workplace.  The most important information: that of compensation, is kept a closely guarded secret.  Almost all the communication from within the firm are supposed to remain within the firm.  And of course, there are trade secrets, intellectual property and whatnot, which are closely guarded lest the firm lose its competitive advantage.

I believe that when you know something, and when you know that that information is of interest to the other person, but you withhold it, it causes stress.

I find that more and more, information asymmetries are what are deciding wealth or the lack of it in our knowledge economy.

A salesperson dare not tell the customer about the shortcomings in what he is trying to sell.

A job candidate knows his shortcomings, but tries to suppress that information and and hopes that the interview process doesn't reveal him.

A firm advertises its product, highlighting a small subset of its features which are better than the competition, but not talking about the others.

I believe this pervasive environment of information withholding is a massive source of stress in the modern workplace.  It is even more stressful when it is lying not just by omission (e.g. Bill Clinton's evasive replies during his testimony about the Monica Lewinsky affair), but when the lying is blatant (e.g. Yahoo's CEO lying on his resume, Paul Ryan "mis-remembering" his marathon time, and so on).

Consider also the laws related to insider trading.  If you just go ahead and indulge your human predilection to share information with your friends, and they use that information to their benefit, that is a criminal offense.   It is not hard to understand why it should be an offense.  You received that information because of privileged access, and you are therefore abusing that privilege by sharing the information.

But I cannot but help imagine the stress that must be felt by such a holder of secrets.  The more information you have which you cannot share for fear of consequence, the more stressful your interactions are with your fellow human beings.

In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the protagonist breaks down due to this very stress of keeping a big, guilty secret within himself.

One of my uncles very astutely and pithily commented - and this was many years back - that people are stressed in the modern world because they have to pretend, lie and put up a facade more than ever in human history.  I agree with him.

More and more, we are part of a "market" where the most astute and cunning player wins.  In such an environment, an attitude of transparency, honesty and forthrightness is a sure fire way to lose.

The more you are able to be just "yourself" with someone, the more stress-free that relationship is.  The more you have to be withheld, non-spontaneous, aware, calculative, the less emotionally nourishing the relationship becomes.  If almost all your relationships demand watchfulness and some form of deceit, then it is not surprising that you will find yourself stressed and alienated.

Humaneness and a feeling of kinship makes us want to share interesting information.  But because today there may be valid (and some not so valid) reasons for keeping things bottled up, we cannot but go against our nature if we are to play by the rules.  And this unnatural way of being takes its toll.


Anonymous said...

very interesting analysis.

Anonymous said...

"People are stressed in the modern world because they have to pretend, lie and put up a facade more than ever in human history."

Very true. Hell, you can't even fart in a social setting! The animal within must be tamed at all times and this creates so much of the stress.