More on the Dangers of Information Overload

I recently read another article on the dangers of information overload. In my view there cannot be too many articles on information overload as this is a serious problem. This Newsweek article1 is quite good. It reported the reseach of the Director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, Angelika Dimoka, who employed brain imaging (fMRI) techniques to examine how the brain respond people are trying to make decisions when they are severely overtaxed. She found that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and the control of emotions, suddenly fell off when the information load increased. It was similar to a circuit breaker popping. Now activity in the parts of the brain registering emotional activity, the parts of the brain normally kept in check by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, ran wild. So the research participants made stupid decisions and their anxiety levels soared.

The article also points out that this concern with information overload is not new. Leibniz bemoaned the “horrible mass of books which keeps on growing,” in the 17th Century. In 1729 Alexander Pope warned of “a deluge of authors covering the land.” But the problem today is many, many orders of magnitude larger, both respect to the amount of information and the rapidity with which it arrives.

The article notes that one reason for this limitation is the limited capacity of short-term memory. One way of looking at short-term memory is the number of items that we can attend to at one time. Here is where the Magic Number 7 Plus or Minus Two, created comes in. Actually subsequent research has indicated that the true magic number might be 5 or even lower. An important factor is the nature of the items to be remembered. It is prudent that you do not consider more options at a time than is warranted by your magic number. So if more items need to be evaluated, it is good to evaluate them in groups, with run-offs, if necessary.

Another ramification of this limitation in short-term memory is that recency trumps quality. So there is the risk of a poorer choice being made simply due to the order in which the options were considered. So in addition to considering options in groups, also consider the order in which the option was considered.

When the number of options is large, it is good to resort to transactive memory. That is, write things down, use a spreadsheet, whatever. Try to develop a systematic scoring system to evaluate options.

The Newsweek also mentions the neglected unconscious. Provide sufficient time to allow your unconscious mind to work for you. The article presents evidence supporting the benefits of unconscious processing. Also remember that making the optimal decision is often not realistic. Be satisfied with satisficing, the process identified by the Nobel Lauerate Herbert Simon. Be satasified with considering enough information to assure yourself that the decision is satisfactory and should not lead to disappointment.

1Begley, S. (2011). I Can’t Think. Newsweek, March 7, 28-33.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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