Pandemic information overload is exhausting our ability to make everyday decisions, says Leah Heiss, who offers some ideas on managing the impacts.
We are living in strange times. Our risk environment changes on a daily basis and things that seemed commonplace a couple of months ago can feel truly frightening (like buying eggs from the local IGA!).
A few weeks ago my husband and I went to the Victoria Markets to buy two weeks’ worth of supplies. The operation was carried out with military precision. We had the getaway vehicle in position for a 7am departure, shortest routes between the deli and seafood section planned out, and (home-made) masks at the ready. Attesting to the increased perception of risk, I woke up continually throughout the night, anxious that I would sleep through and miss the ‘quiet’ window.
Until recently, my walk to the market was a highlight of each weekend. It presented an opportunity to connect with 7–10 friendly vendors and ply my brain with feel-good chemicals induced by social interaction.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change.
In addition to our sense of risk ‘thickening’, our information environment has also intensified and congealed around us. We are plied 24/7 with infection and mortality rates, changes in government guidelines, and news about the economy tanking. All of this is exhausting to our willpower reserves.
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney write that willpower is depleted in a dense decision landscape.1. Some of their research focuses on decision landscapes in relation to healthy eating. For instance, supermarkets are designed to take advantage of our dwindling willpower reserves so that as we near the checkout we are accosted by many not-so-great choices (hello Kinder eggs).
Baumeister and Tierney’s central thesis is that we have limited reserves of energy for decision-making and these deplete throughout the day.2 Furthermore, every decision we make uses up glucose in the top of our brains. So, if you need to make an important decision try having a small snack first — it worked for parole judges in Israel.3
While decision fatigue in our pre-COVID lives might occur at the end of the day, this now happens earlier due to the numerous decisions we are making all day, every day.
Should I go to the supermarket or the market? How long can this pasta/rice/toilet paper last? Should I go for a walk with a friend or is that too risky? What is the process for detoxifying my latest online purchase? Should I let my kids see my parents? And really, do I have to spray the soles of my feet with Glen-20 disinfectant if I walk out the door barefoot?
The part of our brain that deals with decision-making is exhausted by the relentlessness of these constant high stakes options. Excessive decision-making can lead our willpower to diminish, making us prone to snapping at minor things.
Add to this scenario the information overload we are all experiencing. We wake up to COVID updates, consume them all day and go to sleep with them. The information environment is changing rapidly and there is a temptation to check in more often than we might usually do. As a result, our brains can quickly become overwhelmed by information overload.
As Eppler and Mengis suggest: “The burden of a heavy information load will confuse the individual, affect his or her ability to set priorities, and make prior information harder to recall.”4. This sounds like my every morning!
The subject of information overload has been investigated widely in organisational psychology, organisation science, information science and management literature. It is characterised by engagement with excessive information to the extent that reasoning and decision-making abilities are impaired.5
Research suggests that information overload can be caused by: increasing diversity of information types;6 increased uncertainty within the information processing environment;7 increases in required processing speed;8 and lack of structure in information.9
I would argue that all of these are currently in play. There is an increase in the diversity of information coming in; there is enormous uncertainty in the environment; we have limited processing time as the information is changing so rapidly; our processing capacities are limited as we never have the full story; and there is a lack of structure in the information available.
Governments and news services are scrambling to provide information that is up-to-date and this means the information is often incomplete or provided from a single viewpoint.
So, in an increasingly information-dense environment, how does one manage the impacts of information overload and decision fatigue? Researchers suggest the following approaches: increasing information literacy10 and critical thinking 11; “compacting, condensing and organizing information”12; structuring information by typology, life span, hierarchy and sequence13; and the strategy of satisficing, a coping mechanism for curtailing the information retrieval process.14 Colloquially, this is the practice of ‘making do’.
What does all this mean in practical terms?
Increasing information literacy and critical thinking might include diversifying our information supply channels. This isn’t about consuming more news but rather getting better at managing the information that we are consuming. An example of this is to read something that makes us better at understanding the way information is presented — zooming out to getting a bigger picture view. I’ve finally taken my husband’s advice and started reading Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness (amazing BTW), which has helped me to understand the many ways that we can misinterpret data.15
In terms of structuring, condensing and organising information, you might think about getting your news in a bundle. Some thoughtful news services are providing podcasts that are talking about COVID with greater nuance. Two examples of these are the daily Coronacast from ABC Radio and Full Story from The Guardian. Both provide audio reporting that is less alarming than the newspapers. Another option is to sign up for a daily briefing (I subscribe to one on The New York Times). That way you get your influx of intensity all in one hit rather than checking in throughout the day. By 10am you’re recovered from fight or flight and ready to get back to regular life.
Satisficing is a particularly good approach to adopt at the moment and one that can save us a lot of headaches. It means operating without having access to all the facts and finding a way to be OK with this. In the current climate this might look like saying “enough is enough! I’ve had it with this information super-highway being ploughed into my brain!” and choosing to switch off to news. This is an OK strategy unless the daily updates are going to impact you personally. In that case it’s best to make sure you have an information lifeguard on duty.
Finally, building habits is a powerful way to manage decision fatigue and help conserve willpower during a time of information overload. By focusing on creating strong habits in the early days of lockdown we can minimise cognitive load in the longer term. Habits take a lot of energy to establish but once in place take very little energy to maintain.16 This frees up our willpower to manage the daily experience of being in isolation for the foreseeable future.
Hand washing is a good example of this — every time you enter the house you wash your hands for 20 seconds (never have my hands been so clean and looked so old!). Other habits might apply to the way we deal with deliveries when they arrive; shop for food and manage those groceries once they are brought into the house; exercise safely within the guidelines (bike rides are good to avoid all those joggers); manage our intake of information; develop a new behaviour (mediation anyone?); or manage the family schedule.
These habits can decrease decision fatigue and this translates to more willpower, and more willpower translates to more harmony – in my family at least.
Dr Leah Heiss is a designer and Co-Director of the RMIT Wearables and Sensing Network. Her wearable health technologies include Diabetes Jewellery; biosignal sensing emergency jewellery; and swallowable devices to detect disease. Facett, the world’s first modular hearing aid that Leah designed for Blamey Saunders hears, won the Australian Good Design Award, CSIRO Design Innovation Award, a Premier’s Design Award and three government iAwards. Leah’s work is part of the Museums Victoria heritage collection and she has exhibited at galleries locally and globally. She teaches through RMIT’s Master of Design Futures and her teaching practice focuses on health sector innovation.
This article was originally published on Medium and is republished here with permission.
Photo: Annie Spratt, UnsplashFootnotes
- Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength (London: Penguin, 2011)
- Adam F. Stewart, Donna M. Ferriero, Andrew S. Josephson, Daniel H. Lowenstein, Robert O. Messing, Jorge R. Oksenberg, Claiborne S. Johnston and Stephen L. Hauser, “Fighting Decision Fatigue”, Annals of Neurology 71, no. 1 (2012): A5–15.
- John Tierney, “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?”, The New York Times Magazine, 17 August 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html.
- Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, “How Communicators Can Fight Information Overload”, Communication World, San Francisco 26, no. 3 (2009)
- Eppler and Mengis, “How Communicators Can Fight Information Overload”.
- David Bawden, Clive Holtham and Nigel Courtney, “Perspectives on Information Overload”, Aslib Proceedings, Bradford 51, no. 8 (1999): 249.
- Jay R. Galbraith, “Organization Design: An Information Processing View,” Interfaces 4, no. 3 (1974): 28–36.
- Starr R. Hiltz and Murray Turoff, “Structuring Computer-Mediated Communication Systems to Avoid Information Overload”, Communications of the ACM 28, no. 7 (1985): 680–689.
- Paul Königer and Karl Janowitz, “Drowning in Information, But Thirsty for Knowledge”, International Journal of Information Management 15, no. 1 (1995): 5–16.
- David Bawden and Lyn Robinson, “Promoting Literacy in a Digital Age: Approaches to Training for Information Literacy,” Learned Publishing 15, no. 4 (2002): 297–301.
- Bawden, Holtham and Courtney, “Perspectives on Information Overload”.
- Hiltz and Turoff, “Structuring Computer-Mediated Communication Systems” (1985), 682.
- Königer and Janowitz, “Drowning in Information”.
- Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (New York: Springer US, 1985).
- Hans Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018).
- Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change (New York: Random House, 2012).