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.