Posted by: structureofnews | April 3, 2011

Too Much Information

Sharon Begley at Newsweek has an interesting piece – although, of course, she always has interesting pieces – on the firehose of information coming at us and how that affects the way we make decisions.  In a nutshell:  Badly.

This isn’t part of the the-internet-is-making-us-stupid meme, though; in any case, whether we like it or not, the internet is here to stay, and we need to figure out how to embrace the best of it and adjust to the problems it brings.  And that’s what Sharon’s piece does:  It looks at the science of how of brain is wired, and how it’s coping – or not coping – with the pace and amount of information that we can and do process these days.  And gives some suggestions on how we as individuals can manage it better.

And we – as key information providers – ought to be figuring out lessons as well.

The gist is that, when it comes to juggling information to make decisions, our brains aren’t great at handling an excess of data.  Up to a point, we do fine; after that, we basically shut down.

The research should give pause to anyone addicted to incoming texts and tweets. The booming science of decision making has shown that more information can lead to objectively poorer choices, and to choices that people come to regret. It has shown that an unconscious system guides many of our decisions, and that it can be sidelined by too much information. And it has shown that decisions requiring creativity benefit from letting the problem incubate below the level of awareness—something that becomes ever-more difficult when information never stops arriving.

Anyone who’s ever tried to figure out which cellphone plan to sign up for recognizes this problem; although, of course, we all guess that the idea of the complexity of those plans is precisely so we can’t figure them out.  But if we’re trying to get readers/users to understand complex ideas and data, it means we need to put a lot more effort into information design – into building interfaces and defaults that quickly make sense to average users.  It makes the idea of news games even more compelling; the amount of information needed to get through Warcraft can be daunting, but doesn’t seem so when you’re deeply immersed in the game.

A key reason for information’s diminishing or even negative returns is the limited capacity of the brain’s working memory. It can hold roughly seven items (which is why seven-digit phone numbers were a great idea). Anything more must be processed into long-term memory.

Sharon’s piece points to more than overload as an issue, though: It also talks about the pace of information being delivered to us, and how that can overwhelm more sober thinking.

The brain is wired to notice change over stasis. An arriving email that pops to the top of your BlackBerry qualifies as a change; so does a new Facebook post. We are conditioned to give greater weight in our decision-making machinery to what is latest, not what is more important or more interesting.

Again, that’s not surprising to anyway who’s played email ping-pong, firing off quick replies to a flood of messages simply to get them out of the way.  But it also speaks to the broader issues about the speed at which we’re pumping out stories, updates and tweets.  Leaving aside the question of how economically sustainable or valuable that is, what the research points suggests is that it’s not helping our readers all that much either.

True, it’s good at getting their attention, and maybe that helps us get some more ad dollars – although I have real doubts about how viable that is an a main income stream.  But if the goal isn’t just revenue but to help build a more informed society, then flooding the world with faster-and-faster updates may not be helping them, or us.

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