The Basic Idea
These days, we have access to gigabytes — in fact, zettabytes — of information right at our fingertips.1 Our phones provide us access to the web, which alone has enough information available to overwhelm us. Our phones have a plethora of applications that demand our attention through constant notifications. It can be hard to get anything done while the keys to a wealth of knowledge are right in our hands.
Many of us have experienced turning Netflix on and taking forever to pick a movie (there are just so many choices). And Netflix is only one of the many streaming services available to us! Indeed, it would take 47 million years to watch all the HD movies on the web.2 There is definitely too much content for us to reasonably ever get through in our lifetime.
It’s hard to make choices and think clearly. On a daily basis, we are presented with hundreds, if not thousands, of options and pieces of information. We become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information we encounter, a phenomenon known as information overload. Information overload can look like difficulty writing a paper at school when it feels like we’ll never be able to sift through all the available knowledge. It might make it difficult to take political stances due to the overwhelming amount of information on both sides. As information overload prevents us from making rational decisions and can cause us to feel fatigued and irritated, it is important to learn more about the phenomenon and how we can avoid its side effects.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
Historically, the negative side effects of information overload often coincided with periods of rapid technological change. New technologies mean new information, often at a faster rate, and can cause people to feel overwhelmed. Adverse reactions to overwhelming amounts of information began in pre-modern cultures, with the accumulation of manuscripts.4 In fact, a prominent philosopher in the first century AD by the name of Seneca proclaimed that “the abundance of books is distraction.” 1
The burden of having too many books and too little time to read was exacerbated by the advent of the printing press in the 15th century. Before this point, only the wealthy were experiencing information overload, as they were the ones that had access to manuscripts. However, printing made books cheaper and increased the scope of availability.4 In part, information overload was occurring because people felt like there was value in accumulation. They wanted to preserve old texts, rare editions, and artifacts, all while there was a constant supply of new material.
Although the experience of information overload has been around a long time, it was only in 1964 that the expression was coined. American social scientist Bertram Myron Gross wrote a two-volume book, The Managing of Organizations, which marked the first time information overload was published in written word.5 In this book, Gross suggested that an administrative revolution had led to the modern world, which was characterized by an increase in enlarged institutions.6 This rise in institutions contributed to information overload, which Gross defined as occurring “when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.” 5
Although Gross formalized information overload, it wasn’t popularized until Alvin Toffler wrote about it. Toffler, alongside his wife, was a writer and futurist who was often able to predict the effects that rapid developments in technology would have on society.7 In his 1970 book Future Shock, Toffler suggested that when too much change happens too quickly within a society, normal decision-making processes break down.7 He also predicted that accelerating change would lead to adhocracy, a management style that emphasizes individual initiative instead of formal structure. His prediction was based on the fact that with so much change in society, organizations would have to change as well to become more flexible and adaptable.
Since 1970, interest and concern over information overload has only grown. While information overload has always been a problem, the invention of technologies like the internet and smartphones has led to an exponential increase in the amount of information we have available to us. In 2014, 90% of the data that existed in the world had been created in the past two years.8 That percentage has increased in recent years as we continue to digitize aspects of our society.
Bertram Myron Gross
An American social scientist who first coined the term information overload in his 1964 book, The Managing of Organizations.
A writer and futurist who used his novels to imagine how society would be impacted by rapid changes in technology.
An 18th century French Philosopher who edited a general encyclopedia in hope of reflecting the world’s knowledge for future generations. However, even at the time, Diderot was wary about his ability to capture enough information in an encyclopedia to be useful for future generations. He predicted that “a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.” 8
One of the first sociologists to notice that information overload was negatively impacting society. He suggested that the overload of sensation in modern urban life dulled people and made them unable to react well to change.9
American author and historian of science, who in his 2011 book The Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood, examined what it meant to be living in the ‘information age’. He engages in an information theory, which examines how information gets stored and communicated. He suggests information overload is partially due to our desire to measure and quantify information in order to more closely examine it, which led to the creation of data.10
Peter Gordon Rötzel
Professor of accounting and information systems in Germany who believed it was important for research to address information overload interdisciplinarily. The perspective taken to study information overload is often that of business administration, but Rötzel believed that through research must also examine it from a psychological, health and communications perspective.11 His 2019 literature review, Information Overload in the Information Age, further contributed to the phenomenon by focusing on how information overload decreases cognitive capability because people have limited time and resources to sift through all the information. 11
With the endless stream of notifications and messages we have grown accustomed to, information overload decreases our cognitive capability and can lead us to make suboptimal decisions. We can become so overwhelmed by the amount of information we encounter that it actually causes us to be more confused instead of more knowledgeable.12
Since we encounter a vast amount of information, we find it hard to properly sift through it all and prioritize what is important. We might miss an important work email, or find it impossible to make a choice between what product to buy because there are so many options. Being overwhelmed by the options available to us is called the paradox of choice, a phenomenon that suggests that having more options actually makes it harder for us to make decisions.
It’s not just our decisions that suffer from information overload, either. Our willpower uses the same energy stores as decision-making processes, which means that if those energy stores get depleted due to information overload, we will lack energy. This energy depletion can then make us feel irritated, anxious, and unproductive.2
Since information overload is detrimental to our decision-making processes, there are a few tactics we can use to try and combat it. Being able to categorize information based on its importance and urgency can help us not to feel overwhelmed by all the things we need to accomplish, which the Eisenhower Matrix can help us do. Since we get overwhelmed by having too many things on the go at once, information overload can also remind us that unitasking - completing one task at a time - is more productive than multitasking. Lastly, we might want to try and limit possible distractions, such as by turning our phones on do not disturb while we are at work.
Information overload suggests that there is a finite amount of information that our brains can process at once, however, studies researching information overload are not able to indicate exactly what that amount is, or whether it is the same for everyone. A lack of empirical data causes some people to doubt the validity and extent of information overload as a scientific theory.
Additionally, it may be that our response to information overload is a reasonable and rational response to existing constraints on our decision-making capabilities. Many behavioral scientists argue that bounded rationality (the idea that we make rational decisions within the constraints of time, available information, and brain power) helps us find shortcuts to make decisions that satisfy us. In that case, our tendency not to sort through the extra information that is less relevant or important to us could be seen as a positive adaptation to the bustling world we live in.
Information Overload and the Bystander Effect
The bystander effect suggests that the more people who witness an accident, the less likely anyone is to offer help to the person in need. In 1952, American psychologist Stanley Milgram suggested that the reason people fail to act in these situations could actually be information overload. In his paper “The Experience of Living in Cities,” Milgram developed an urban overload hypothesis that states people living in cities are constantly exposed to a multitude of stimuli, causing them to become desensitized to new information.12
As a psychologist, Milgram wanted to examine the psychological factors behind the bystander effect. He suggested that ignoring new information because of overload was a strategy people employed in cities in order not to get overwhelmed.12 When there is too much information present, people must prioritize what will benefit their own lives. Unfortunately, city dwellers’ tendency to ignore some of the stimuli around them cause them to be bad samaritans. This behavior can also be seen as a form of self-protection and preservation.
Milgram was especially interested in people’s responses to information overload as adaptive ways to deal with the hustle and bustle of daily life. He believed that a diminished allocation of time to particular stimuli was a learned response so people could avoid information overload. Milgram suggests that these various adaptive responses help explain the situation that unfolded in the Genovese murder of 1964.12
In 1964, Catherine Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender, coming home in the early hours of the morning in Queens, was stabbed repeatedly to death. Thirty-eight different residents of the neighborhood later admitted to having witnessed at least part of the murder, but none of them called the police or intervened until after Genovese had died. Milgram suggests that people did not act because, due to information overload, they had become desensitized to the high number of stimuli around them at all times.12
How Companies Can Avoid Information Overload
The work expected of employees often surpasses what is manageable in a normal eight-hour workday; assigned tasks often go above and beyond a role’s expectations. It is estimated that information overload, which leads to burn-out and an inability to be productive, costs the U.S. economy $900 billion per year.13 Clearly, burdening employees with too much information isn’t beneficial for anyone.
It isn’t just the workload that can be too much for employees to handle — often, employees are encountering information that is superfluous to their role and responsibilities. They might receive emails that are irrelevant to their department, or receive complicated memos from HR without obvious action items. Research suggests that employees spend 2.5 hours a day on average trying to find the information required to do their job.13 With all that time wasted, it’s no wonder they don’t have enough time to complete their tasks.
Information overload doesn’t just dampen productivity; it can also lead to serious health issues. A study that surveyed managers across the U.S., England, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia found that 33% of managers felt as though their health was suffering due to information overload. The diminished sense of health can be because information overload leads to stress and can have a negative impact on relationships.
The different factors that contribute to information overload should therefore be reduced to avoid employees experiencing burn out. For example, giving employees more personal days or fewer tasks to complete can help them from feeling overwhelmed. A company can also create different listservs for different departments so that employees only receive relevant emails. They can also try to make their communication concise and clear so employees don’t waste time deciphering emails.
Related TDL Content
Remaining Vigilant In The Era of Information Overload
For over a year, one could turn the TV to any channel and be sure to find information about COVID-19. While it is important for people to be knowledgeable about the situation, studies found that people began to ignore the information about the pandemic. In this article, our writer Sanketh Andhavarapu, explores a number of cognitive biases related to information overload that causes people to turn their eyes the other way when it comes to COVID-19.
Do I Agree? Cognitive Bias and Terms of Service
How many times have you signed up for a service or product, scrolled through the terms of service without paying attention, and agreed to them without a second thought? These terms of service can be important, as they explicitly inform us how our data will be used and what rights we have, yet, as our writer Tiago Rodrigo explains, we often ignore them. One of the reasons might be information overload, which can cause paralysis instead of freedom of choice.
- Blair, A. (2010, November 28). Information Overload, Then and Now. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/information-overload-then-and-now/?bc_nonce=1jdmn289zc8qucpvrnmegc&cid=reg_wall_signup
- Tunikova, O. (2018, June 7). Are We Consuming Too Much Information? Medium. https://medium.com/@tunikova_k/are-we-consuming-too-much-information-b68f62500089
- Best quotes about information overload. (2021, April 5). Wylie Communications. Retrieved May 22, 2021, from https://www.wyliecomm.com/writing-tips/readability/importance-of-readability/information-overload-causes-symptoms-and-solutions/quotes-on-info-overload/
- Hemp, P. (2009, September). Death by Information Overload. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2009/09/death-by-information-overload
- Information Overload, Why it Matters and How to Combat It. (n.d.). The Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved May 22, 2021, from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/information-overload-why-it-matters-and-how-to-combat-it
- Robson, W. A. (1966). The managing of organizations. Public Administration, 44(3), 275-281. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9299.1966.tb01586.x
- Adhocracy. (2021, March 26). The Decision Lab. https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/management/adhocracy/
- Controlling information overload. (2014, June 3). LAC Group. https://lac-group.com/blog/controlling-information-overload/
- Bomann, H., & Jones, Q. (2003). Information Overload. Encyclopedia of Community, 661-664. https://edge.sagepub.com/system/files/77593_15.1ref.pdf
- McDonald, C. (2011). The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Information & Culture: A Journal of History.. https://infoculturejournal.org/book_reviews/gleick_mcdonald_2011
- Roetzel, P. G. (2018). Information overload in the Information Age: A review of the literature from business administration, business psychology, and related disciplines with a bibliometric approach and framework development. Business Research, 12(2), 479-522. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40685-018-0069-z
- Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science, 167(3924), 1461-1468. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.167.3924.1461
- How Does Information Overload Affect Your Business & How to Stop It? (2020, September 23). The Employee Communications and Advocacy Blog. https://blog.smarp.com/how-does-information-overload-affect-your-business-how-to-stop-it
- McDermott, A. (2017, October 30). Information Overload Is Crushing You. Here are 11 Secrets That Will Help. Workzone. https://www.workzone.com/blog/information-overload/