How Americans Use Data to Make Decisions

As part of our 75th anniversary celebration this year, NORC at the University of Chicago, has conducted a major survey exploring how Americans get the information they use to make decisions and take action.


Posted 10.4.2016 by Dan Gaylin

We are living in a time where the ways we consume information are evolving rapidly. In a world where anyone with a mobile device can easily access, create, analyze, and disseminate data, or “information,” around the globe, consumers of information (i.e., all of us) need centers of truth that can provide accurate, reliable, trusted information to guide our most important decisions.

As part of our 75th anniversary celebration this year, NORC at the University of Chicago, has conducted a major survey exploring how Americans get the information they use to make decisions and take action. These results focus on how people use information to make decisions and what sources they consistently trust.

First, let’s consider news organizations. There is much discussion of the forthcoming (or perhaps ongoing) demise of traditional media outlets. I’m reminded of the Mark Twain quote: “the rumors of my death have been exaggerated.” While the long-standing business models for news organizations are under threat, I suspect that the organizations themselves are more important than ever as a trusted, objective sources of information. And NORC has some interesting new research results to share that back up this hunch. 

The results of the survey represent an important snapshot of a point in time. The survey compares where we stand today in terms of how Americans gather and use information to make decisions compared with five years ago.

Here are some of the results I found to be the most interesting:

  • Eighty-one percent of Americans believe it is easier to find useful information today than it was five years ago. At the same time, 16 percent report they are often overwhelmed by how much information comes to them, and another 62 percent say the amount of information they get can sometimes be too much.
  • The public uses a mix of newer digital sources and more traditional media sources to obtain information for their daily lives. Digital sources are popular, with two-thirds of Americans saying they often use search engines and nearly half using social media.
  • Legacy media outlets remain frequent sources of information for many people. Six in 10 often use television stations’ broadcasts, websites, or apps to find information they use in their daily lives. Likewise, 4 in 10 often listen to radio stations or go to their websites or apps, and a similar proportion read newspapers in print or online to find information they use in their daily lives.
  • Legacy media enjoy higher levels of trust than digital sources. At least 8 in 10 Americans who use newspapers, radio, search engines, television, and magazines to get information to use in their daily lives say they can mostly or completely trust the information they get from each of these sources.
  • Americans are more reluctant to trust information from blogs and social media. Fifty-five percent say they can mostly or completely trust information from blogs, and 53 percent say the same for social media. That trust gap is similar for all age groups.

Exploring how people respond to the steady streams of data they are exposed to each day and how they use it to guide their decisions will lead to deeper understanding of the impact of an information-rich environment on our society and on individual lives. My colleagues and I at NORC believe that centers of truth will become increasingly important as the volume of data available to us continues to multiply and as purveyors of data seek more effective ways to influence consumers’ behavior.

Please go here to see the full report. There are additional findings in there that delve into:

  • The role a person’s instinct plays in making important decisions.
  • How people gather and validate information about politics and policy.
  • The importance of new media in making decisions about major purchases and obtaining services.
  • The remarkable similarities in the ways people in different political parties seek information.
  • An important newcomer to the information scene, “digital feel.”

What do you think? Where do you go to get information you use to make important decisions? How do you differentiate between information that you find merely interesting versus information that you consider reliable?

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About The Author

Daniel S. Gaylin

Dan Gaylin
President and Chief Executive Officer
(301) 634-9417

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