During the early days of the pandemic, when it was difficult to know what would happen, I read every article, listened to every expert interview, followed every update. I would look up from my computer and find that an hour had vanished in the quest for more information. And what was the result? I wasn’t significantly more informed than I would have been from a brief scan of the news in the morning. If anything, I was simply more anxious and on edge.
This feeling is now far too familiar to many of us. Whether it be doom scrolling on Twitter, listening to podcast after podcast, or checking in on every last CNN.com alert, what researchers call “information overload” has become a widespread problem, especially for young people whose habits have developed in the smartphone era.
Fortunately, plenty can be done to cultivate healthier information consumption habits. The key is to think more critically, intentionally, and reflectively about our relationship to the news.
First of all, what exactly is information overload? The idea has existed since long before the internet. In the influential 1970 book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler wrote that the modern, technologically-accelerated world could cause “distress, both physical and psychological, that arises from an overload of the human organism’s physical adaptive systems and its decision-making processes.”
Information overload is not just consuming a lot of information, but consuming so much, from so many different sources, that it negatively impacts our judgment and well-being. Researchers typically measure information overload in terms of feelings of being overwhelmed or having difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Researchers David Bawden and Lyn Robinson call information overload a “situation which arises when there is so much relevant and potentially useful information available that it becomes a hindrance rather than a help.”
Information becomes a hindrance because of limits in humans’ cognitive capacity. In the 1950s the psychologist George A. Miller famously proposed that we could only hold about seven “chunks” of information in our working memory at once. More recent research has since complicated this idea, but held up the notion of strict limits on information processing, perhaps even stricter than Miller proposed.
What happens when our information processing faculties are overwhelmed? Different people react differently of course. It can lead to fatigue, confusion, stress, anxiety, and even depression, especially for children and adolescents. The executive function in our brain can get overloaded, leading to unease, difficulty making decisions, and that familiar sense of going down a rabbit hole and losing a significant chunk of time without quite knowing how it happened.
The consequences in social terms can be significant as well. Paradoxically, information overload can lead to a less-informed population. A comprehensive study of news consumers in Europe found that “hyper news consumers,” who consume information from whatever sources they can get their hands on, were less politically knowledgeable than those who consumed information in moderation. The study’s authors attribute this to information overload.
Similarly, overconsumption of information may distort people’s perceptions, especially in an information environment that emphasizes inflammatory stories that drive engagement. For example, one study of biases against members of the opposing political party found that “those who report following the news most closely also hold the most prototype-biased beliefs about party composition.” In other words, “well-informed” Democrats were more likely to hold skewed views about Republicans, such as that many of them make over $250,000 a year, whereas “well-informed” Republicans were prone to badly overestimate the numbers of Democrats who were atheists.
It seems that, as Ezra Klein put it in Vox, “At least some of what we learn as we become more politically informed is how to mask our partisanship by spouting things that sound that like facts, but often aren’t.”
At its worst, information overload may exacerbate polarization and allow conspiracy theories to flourish, as we’ve seen happen during the pandemic and in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
Too many media choices can also cause people to narrow their media consumption to only a few outlets, because they simply can’t decide which ones to watch. This simplistic response — “there are too many news channels, I’ll just stick with the one I’ve always watched” — can keep news consumers isolated from competing points of view.
Researchers note this is subtly different from “information overload.” So-called “choice overload” is a phenomena where people have difficulty making a decision if presented with numerous options. While the research on this is muddled, psychologists and economists “are concluding that an overload of options may actually paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own best interest,” according to a piece in The New York Times.
So how can information overload be combatted?
First of all, people need to approach the news more intentionally. They need a plan. The study about hyper news consumers found that they were outperformed in political knowledge by those who stuck to a few reliable sources, instead of trying to follow every last blog post and Twitter thread. If you just enter the fray of endless news without formulating your approach first, you are bound to get inundated by information that isn’t helping you. Instead, identify a few reputable sources from a variety of perspectives and stick to those.
Formulating a plan for information consumption stimulates executive function. So does reflection. Ask yourself questions about what you read. Talk yourself through why it matters to you. Discuss what you’ve learned with friends and acquaintances, both to help it sink in and to hear alternative viewpoints. By contrast, if you’re just consuming information for distraction or entertainment, it will at best stay with you as a faint impression, or worse an emotional distortion that actually hampers your ability to think critically about the world around you.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, take a break from your devices. Think about subscribing to print publications to help put physical limits on your consumption and to remove your news intake from the vortex of social media. See what you can learn about what’s going on in your community from an event at a local library or coffee shop. Get involved in volunteering or a cause you believe strongly in.
Friends, this isn’t the time to be complacent. If you are ready to fight for the soul of this nation, you can start by donating to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by clicking the button below.
Thank you so much for supporting Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign.