The Dangers of Information Overload

William J. Lynott

     Alvin Toffler sounded the first early warning more than 30 years ago. In his trailblazing book, Future Shock (Random House, 1971), Toffler theorized that the human brain has finite limits on how much information it can absorb and process. Exceed that limit and the brain becomes overloaded, thinking and reasoning become dulled, decision-making flawed and, in some cases, impossible. Even worse, he suggested, information overload will eventually lead to widespread physical and mental disturbances. He called this phenomenon "future shock syndrome."
     Back then, all this sounded like a dose of science fiction, but some of today's scientists and researchers say that Toffler was right. They tell us that information overload can indeed cause stress build-up and short-circuits in the central nervous system. That, in turn, can bring on harmful mental and physical changes.
     Internationally known British psychologist, David Lewis, Ph.D., goes further. He says, "I do think there are people out there who are dying because they're getting too much information and they don't know how to handle it."
     Americans are being overwhelmed with information. Each new day introduces an unrelenting flow of data -- TV news, the Internet, e-mail, voicemail, faxes, cell phones, pagers, billboards, junk mail, newspapers, magazines, books, catalogs, nonstop cable news. It never lets up and there's no place to hide. It assaults us at home, at work, even at play. By one estimate, a single issue of the New York Times contains more information than the average 17th-century person would come across in an entire lifetime.
     "Think of the brain as a giant board with lights," says Dr. Larry D. Rosen, Professor of Psychology at California State University. "Each light represents a concept. When a concept is brought to your attention, that area lights up. With so much information reaching you, many areas are lit up at once. To handle this, your brain uses a controller that focuses attention on the most important area. It also keeps scanning other areas in case they become important. With so much brain activity, keeping your attention focused becomes very difficult.
     "The result is wandering attention, inability to stick to one task and frustration at the constant interruptions from new areas being lit up. At night, while you're asleep, the controller is still sorting out information, often waking you with ideas buzzing in your head."
     Much of this growing information assault on our senses can be blamed on the astonishingly rapid growth of technology. Relatively new e-mail has become one of the biggest contributors to data glut. Writing in USA Today, author Del Jones says, "In the three seconds it takes to read this sentence, more than a half-million e-mails will land in in-boxes. By 2005, nearly that many will land each second.
     Obviously, our ability to gather and deliver information has increased greatly since the 17th century, but the brain's ability to absorb and process it has not changed since the days of the cave man, say today's research scientists.   
     "No matter how much we try to absorb everything that comes at us via the various media channels, our brains are limited and can only focus on one thing at a time in depth," says Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., a social psychologist in Los Angeles. "Much of what we think we're taking in is dissipated before we're able to digest it -- and it dissipates our mental energy at the same time."
     Still, Americans clamor for more information. "Not only are we swamped with facts and trivia, but many of us actually become addicted -- using the term loosely -- to this high level of cognitive stimulation," says Dr. Perry,
     "People make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge," says David Shenk, author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (HarperEdge, 1997). Shenk writes that information overload fuels stress and promotes faulty thinking. "The data glut we all slog through every day at work reduces our attention span and makes us numb to anything that doesn't lurch out and grab us by the throat."
     The workplace, especially, has become a breeding ground for information overload. A worldwide survey (Reuters, 1996) found that two thirds of managers suffer from increased tension and one-third from ill health because of the huge amounts of information they must cope with. The workplace, in fact, has become our leading source of stress, according to the American Institute of Stress.
     For many of today's workers, the day begins with scanning 50 to 100 e-mails, or more. Most are unwanted spam (junk e-mail). Then it's time to check voice mail where other messages are probably waiting. After that, attention turns to regular mail, inter-office memos, and other paper communications. All of this before productive work can begin. For the rest of the day, pagers and cell phones clamor for attention, serving as conduits for a steady flow of still more information.
     No wonder that some workers are complaining that it's simply too much to handle.
As serious as the data glut problem is in the workplace, it isn't without its humorous side. A 1999 news dispatch from Reuters tells the story of a Ukraine businessman who bought a pager for each member of his staff as a New Year's gift. On his way from the pager store to his office, all 50 of the new pagers went off at once loudly announcing the arrival of a new message. The businessman was so startled by the noise that he simply let go of the steering wheel allowing the car to crash into a lamppost.
     After he assessed the damage to his car, the businessman turned his attention to the message on the 50 pagers. It read, "Congratulations on a successful purchase."
     Even home doesn't provide a safe haven from the information assault. With television serving as the primary news source for most Americans, the one-eyed monster force-feeds us a diet of information that exacerbates the problem.
     TV moguls have developed a reporting technique they have appropriately dubbed sound bites. By squeezing complex subjects into the fewest possible words, with few if any adjectives or adverbs, evening news anchors are able to pepper us with an astonishing number of rapid-fire blurbs -- all in the course of a single 30-minute newscast.
     Psychologist Michael S. Broder, Ph.D., Philadelphia, PA, agrees that television news is part of the information overload problem. "On a day when there is little or no news of significance," he says, "producers take unimportant events and massage them until they sound like news. Thus, trivial data is marketed as important information, adding to the information glut."
     Another problem is in the manner in which television packages news events. "The media often sensationalizes without giving proper information on the probabilities," says James P. Buchanan, Ph.D., professor of Psychology at Scranton University, Scranton, PA. "A good example is child abductions. The likelihood of a child being abducted, especially by a stranger, is very low. However, the sensationalizing of these rare events on news broadcasts has caused many parents to become extremely worried about this happening to their child. Similar reactions take place with the announcement of medical 'breakthroughs.'"
     In the early days of television, the weather report consisted of a few sentences read by the news anchor. Today, in order to hear the forecast for tomorrow's weather, viewers must first wade through several minutes of animated graphics, arrows, curlicues, highs, lows, clockwise and counterclockwise flows, and the dew points in cities on the other side of the continent. As one comedian observed, "Today's weather persons have learned how to cram enough useless trivia into three or four minutes to intimidate the host of Jeopardy."
      And don't think you're safe from information overload when you're tooling down the highway in the family car. "People are taking their cell phones, CDs, and computers with them in their cars," says Phil Spelt, former investigator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's In-Vehicle Information System (IVIS) Development Center. Adding to this potential for data glut are the messages that many newer cars transmit to their drivers. Satellite systems produce maps and spoken directions, dash gauges flash warning signals and system analysis while the radio floods the senses with music and news.
     In a 1999 study, Spelt, who is now retired, observed 36 men and women as they "drove" in an auto simulator while being rapidly bombarded with information from a cell phone, a collision-warning device, a satellite navigation system, and a computer screen. The test produced several "crashes" and one out of six of the drivers missed at least one of the turns included in the run.
     It would seem, then, that no matter where you are, or what you do, "data smog" lies in wait, ready to seep its way into your psyche. With nowhere for us to hide, it's only natural to ask if there a way to shield ourselves from this unrelenting technological assault.
     "There's no way to insulate yourself completely from information overload," says Dr. Broder, "but there are steps you can take to minimize its potentially harmful effects.
"Perhaps the most important first step," he says, "is to recognize that the potential ill effects of information overload are very real. The information glut drains your time and your emotional energy. Worse, perhaps, it dulls your ability to think for yourself."
     Psychologist Susan Battley, Ph.D., CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, Stony Brook, NY offers a similar observation from a slightly different perspective. "Time is a non-renewable resource," she says. "We all get 168 hours per week. People need to view time as an asset, and invest rather than spend it. It's easier to screen out information "noise" once we recognize it as such. Just because we have access to all the information in the world doesn't mean we can process it all."
     Our experts agree, then, that the most important building block for a defense against information overload is recognition of its existence, plus healthy respect for the importance of your own time. Here are additional steps that will help you to fortify your personal defense:

1. At Work
     o Take control of e-mail. A glance at the subject line is all you need to identify most unwanted e-mails. Keep your curiosity under control and hit the delete button.
Close the door on spam. Use a commercial filtering program to help eliminate spam before it reaches your inbox. Many Internet service providers now offer spam filters at no extra cost.
     o Develop an information control strategy for your office. Ask colleagues to join you in eliminating the exchange of unnecessary information. Keep paperwork brief and to the point; eliminate it whenever possible. Don't attempt to analyze every piece of available data before making a decision.
     o Keep meetings on track. Make sure that every meeting has a specific agenda and don't permit the introduction of irrelevant data or information.
     o Eliminate duplication. Let everyone know your preferred means of communication. Has anyone ever e-mailed and faxed you identical information -- and then phoned to see if you received it?
     "Eliminate this problem by informing your colleagues about your preferred means of contact," says Dr. Rosen. "If you don't want a fax unless it is truly important, say so. If you want to communicate only through telephone or e-mail, state your preferences clearly."

2. At Home
     o Limit your TV viewing time. Your television set is the worst information overload offender in your home. Keeping your TV turned on for "company" is a sure road to data glut. Even the news is mostly fluff these days.
     o Kill junk mail. Drop a note to the Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale NY 11735. Include your home address and all the variations of your name being used by junk mailers. Ask them to remove you from all the direct mail lists with which they are associated.
     o Beware the Internet. It has been said that every piece of information in existence can be found on the Web. But who needs it. Surfing the Web for hours at a time just to find random information has become something of a national addiction. Limit your time on the Internet to gaining access to information you really need.
     o Review your subscriptions. Do you really need all those magazines and newspapers that come into your home? When it's time to renew, ask yourself if you would miss them.
     o Allow yourself some "quiet time" every day. Each of our experts emphasized the importance of self-discipline in the battle against information overload. Once you recognize the dangers of data glut, it's up to you to take action to minimize its effects on you. Setting aside a little time each day completely insulated from data input is a sure way to strengthen your defense.
     If you're like most people, you're quite capable of shutting out unneeded or unwanted information. "Humans can do a very good job of what we call selective attention," says Dr. Buchanan. "For example once people buy a car they will typically shut out information about the cars they did not choose. That makes me wonder why have some people fail to use the information overload safeguards that they are capable of."

3. Everywhere
     "If you want to protect yourself from information overload," says Dr. Susan Perry, "it's up to you to set up your own filter system. You have to decide which information is important enough to read, watch, or pay attention to. Sometimes the best solution is the easiest one: turn off the TV, turn of the computer, close the book, and allow yourself the luxury of your own thoughts"
     William Van Winkle may have summed it up best. Writing in Computer Bits Magazine, he observed, "Data is like food. A good meal is served in reasonably sized portions from several food groups. It leaves you satisfied but not stuffed. Likewise with information, we're best served when we can partake of reasonable, useful portions, exercising discretion in what data we digest and how often we seek it out."


from The Elks Magazine
April 2003
copyright (c) William J. Lynott

more samples of Bill's work

Return to Bill Lynott's Home Page