Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Serendipitous discoveries

On the topic of incidental information acquisition (IIA), the very first aspect to consider, from a scholarly point of view, is whether it even is a valid topic to study. Is there more to it than just unintentional eavesdropping, such as overhearing a conversation on the bus? What is there to learn in the field and how can it help us? Jannica Heinström would say that increasing our understanding of spontaneous thinking can be incredibly valuable and, for one thing, could help information system designers build systems that are more compatible with the way our brains collect and process new information from the world around us.

Heinström is particularly interested in the link between personality traits and emotional states and an individual's "proneness for serendipitous discovery." We are constantly bombarded with information as we walk through the world or sit behind a computer, and our brains are in an ongoing process of consciously or unconsciously selecting which of the messages and bits of info we encounter to detect, select, and store. There are obviously some environments where we are probably more likely to acquire incidental information, walking down a busy downtown block, for example, where we will come into contact with many unanticipated people and signs, but physically isolated environments can be just as fruitful from an IIA standpoint when we are reading a book, or the newspaper, or interacting with a community online. And according to studies, it seems that some people are more likely to have these IIA experiences--or at least to register and retain them.

In her 2006 article, Heinström lists personality characteristics often associated with people who seem to be frequent serendipitous discoverers: "sagacity, awareness, curiosity, flexible thinking, and persistence." It makes sense that people who are more open, curious, or spontaneous would be more receptive to the flow of information around them. It has been shown that "motivation is the basic fuel for information seeking;" the more interested you are in your topic, the more likely you are to achieve a higher level of search results. So it would be logical to follow that people who are open and adventurous or have a wide range of interests would encounter information in an incidental way more frequently. But where I disagree with Heinström is where she brings the discussion into the terms of extravert vs. introvert. She sites extraverts' "higher need for outer incentives" and increased levels of activity as reasons for their sensitivity to IIA. It seems a bit of a stretch to consider extraverts more open and innovative simply because they may spend more of their time in people-heavy environments and crave the variety that comes with new situations and people.

As an introvert anything I have to say on this is, naturally, heavily biased, but I feel like introverts are often extremely observant, perceptive individuals, and while they may not feel as comfortable in busy or highly populated arenas, during the time they are in those environments they are likely to be incredibly sensitive to new information. And to the argument that extraverts are more frequent spontaneous discoverers because they thrive on variance and therefore their very routines reinforce a higher potential for perception, I would argue that an introvert reading a book alone can come into contact with just as much incidental information as an extravert at a party. Especially in our digital age, extraverts are not necessarily more likely to explore new situations. Heavy use of social media tools--blogs, chats, MMOs--can expose introverts to new people and places through the privacy and peacefulness of their own living room.

It's important to remember that "introvert" and "extravert" are poor generalizations, and few people are at one extreme end of the continuum or the other. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle; but still people are fond of attaching these blanket terms to others. Information incidental acquisition hasn't been studied all that much, mainly because it's incredibly difficult to capture and examine something like serendipity in the real world. As studies go forward, I think it could be more interesting to consider what underlying factors make individuals more curious or naturally observant than to get stuck in these notions of extroversion vs. introversion.

Heinstrom, J. (2006). Psychological factors behind incidental information acquisition. Library & Information Science Research, 28(4):579-594.

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