The dynamic at the heart of information overload

Nick IngramThinking0 Comments

This is the fourth part in a series on how technology “hijacks our minds” (to quote Google’s Tristan Harris). You can read part one of the series here.

The last three blogs have looked at:

Now it’s time to turn to the big one – information overload. Ever since Gutenberg, technology has been responsible for more and more information in our lives. But over the last decades the increase has been exponential.

What is information overload?

You can find multiple definitions of information overload online, which is ironic when you pause to think about it. Some people talk about physical symptoms, others describe a feeling of being overwhelmed. I suspect the best way to think about information overload is as an inability to make decisions, or at least to make good decisions, because of a combination of fatigue and too much information. In fact – I suspect it’s better to think of information overload as a process, rather than a static “thing”.

Information overload is better thought of as a process

Information overload is really a process, which can be thought of as unfolding over a work-day, where we make poorer and poorer decisions, or are unable to understand new information, because of growing fatigue. This fatigue squeezes our “processing funnel” more and more over time – making it harder and harder to process new information, understand it, and make good decisions from it. The diagram below illustrates this:

Information overload

The diagram shows your “processing funnel”. This is a metaphor for your brain’s executive function and working memory networks. Going into the top of the funnel is all the information that you come across in the course of a work-day. Emails, Yammer updates, meetings, memos, phone calls, etc. The sheer volume of information is one driver of overload. But there is another driver of overload. As your neurons process all this information hitting you, they burn glucose and get tired. That restricts the funnel. Over the course of the day, even though the volume of information doesn’t drop, the funnel you rely on is a whole lot narrower.

In other words there are two drivers of information overload:

  • Firstly, the sheer volume of information.
  • Secondly, the narrowing of your “processing funnel” through fatigue, caused by all the decision making this information is causing you to undertake.

First driver – the sheer volume of information

The first driver of information overload is simply the sheer volume of information hitting us today. You’ve heard it all before, so I won’t repeat much of it. In short, there’s too much information and our processing “funnel” is too small. Just one example will do. Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organised Mind, states: “In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986 – the equivalent of 175 newspapers.” In other words, the sheer volume of information we are exposed to is going to overwhelm us.

Second driver – the narrowing of our “processing funnel”

Compounding the sheer volume of information hitting us is the effect that the act of processing has on our brains. By processing the information and deciding what to do with it – by making decisions and responding to people – we are burning energy and narrowing our processing funnel.

Now, this wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for one thing. We tend to make decisions and process stuff that’s just as likely to be trivial as important. In other words, we are just as likely to expend energy on trivial decisions – and narrow our processing funnel for the rest of the day – as we are to expend energy on important decisions.

Why? Because of a fundamental insight of neuroscience that Levitin explains in his book: “The decision making network in our brain doesn’t prioritise”.

Your brain doesn’t care if the information you are processing through the “funnel” is important – for example, how will new FinTech players disrupt your bank? – or trivial – was there really an anonymous fifth housemate in The Young Ones? Your brain will spend just as much energy deciding whether you think Vivian, Rick, Mike and Neil had a mysterious lodger, as it will working out how the next FinTech start-up is going to eat your loan portfolio margin.

I’ll say this again. Your decision making network doesn’t prioritise. It will waste limited energy on the trivial, undermining your capacity to make better decisions on the important, if that’s what you let into the top of your “processing funnel”.

Next week

Next week, we’ll look at some “hacks” for dealing with this unhealthy dynamic. A dynamic of too much information coming in the top of the processing funnel, further narrowing its capacity to process, resulting in poorer and poorer decision making.

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