Information overload

For the album by Alien Sex Fiend, see Information Overload (album).

Information overload (also known as infobesity [1] or infoxication[2] ) refers to the difficulty a person can have understanding an issue and making decisions that can be caused by the presence of too much information.[3] The term is popularized by Alvin Toffler in his bestselling 1970 book Future Shock, but is mentioned in a 1964 book by Bertram Gross, The Managing of Organizations.[4] Speier et al. (1999) stated:[5]

Information overload occurs 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.

In recent years, the term "information overload" has evolved into phrases such as "information glut" and "data smog" (Shenk, 1997). What was once a term grounded in cognitive psychology has evolved into a rich metaphor used outside the world of academia. In many ways, the advent of information technology has increased the focus on information overload: information technology may be a primary reason for information overload due to its ability to produce more information more quickly and to disseminate this information to a wider audience than ever before.[6]

President Bill Clinton said this about information overload: “There’s a danger that too much stuff cramming in on people’s minds is just as bad for them as too little, in terms of the ability to understand, to comprehend.”[7] Even the trained researcher can suffer from information overload. Diving into research can cause anxiety with the sheer amount of scholarly resources available.

Origin of the term

One of the first social scientists to notice the negative effects of information overload was the sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918), who hypothesized that the overload of sensations in the modern urban world caused city dwellers to become jaded and interfered with their ability to react to new situations. The social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933–1984) later used the concept of information overload to explain bystander behavior.[8]

Psychologists have recognized for many years that humans have a limited capacity to store current information in the memory. Psychologist George Armitage Miller was very influential in this regard, proposing that people can process about seven chunks of information at a time. Miller says that under overload conditions, people become confused and are likely to make poorer decisions based on the information they have received as opposed to making informed ones.[9]

A quite early example of the term "information overload" can be found in an article by Jacob Jacoby, Donald Speller and Carol Kohn Berning, who conducted an experiment on 192 housewives which was said to confirm the hypothesis that more information about brands would lead to poorer decision making.[10]

Long before that, the concept was introduced by Diderot, although it was not by the term "information overload":

As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict 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.


Early history

Information overload has been documented throughout periods where advances in technology have increased a production of information.[11] As early as the 3rd or 4th century BC, people regarded information overload with disapproval.[11] Around this time, in Ecclesiastes 12:12, the passage revealed the writer's comment "of making books there is no end" and in 1st century AD, Seneca the Elder commented, that "the abundance of books is distraction".[11] Similar complaints around the growth of books were also mentioned in China.[12]


Around 1440 AD, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and this marked another period of information proliferation. As a result of lowering production costs, generation of printed materials ranging from pamphlets, manuscripts to books were made available to the average person.[11][13] Scholars complained about the abundance of information for a variety of reasons, such as the diminishing quality of text as printers rushed to print manuscripts and the supply of new information being distracting and difficult to manage.[11]

18th century

Many grew concerned with the rise of books in Europe, especially in England, France, and Germany. From 1750 to 1800, there was a 150% increase in the production of books.[14] In 1702, jurist and philosopher Christian Thomasius expressed concerns about the overproduction of books, comparing it to an epidemic. Thomasius felt with more books being published, the standards of publishing a book decreased. In 1795, German bookseller and publisher Johann Georg Heinzmann said "no nation printed as much as the Germans"[15] and expresses concern about Germans reading ideas and no longer creating original thoughts and ideas.[14]

Information age

In the second half of the 20th Century, advances in computer and information technology led to the creation of the Internet.

In the modern information age, information overload is experienced as distracting and unmanageable information such as email spam, email notifications, instant messages, Tweets and Facebook updates in the context of the work environment.[16] Social media has resulted in "social information overload," which can occur on sites like Facebook,[17] and technology is changing to serve our social culture.

In today's society, day-to-day activities increasingly involve the technological world where information technology exacerbates the number of interruptions that occur in the work environment.[18] A 2012 survey by McKinsey Global Institute found that the average worker spends 28% of work time managing email.[19] Adding this decade's use of the Internet, management may be even more disrupted in their decision making, and may result in more poor decisions. Thus, the PIECES framework mentions information overload as a potential problem in existing information systems.[20]

As the world moves into a new era of globalization, an increasing number of people are connecting to the Internet to conduct their own research[21] and are given the ability to produce as well as consume the data accessed on an increasing number of websites. Users are now classified as active users because more people in society are participating in the Digital and Information Age.[22] More and more people are considered to be active writers and viewers because of their participation.[23] This flow has created a new life where we are now in danger of becoming dependent on this method of access to information. Therefore, we see an information overload from the access to so much information, almost instantaneously, without knowing the validity of the content and the risk of misinformation.[24][25]

According to Sonora Jha of Seattle University, journalists use the Web to conduct research, get information regarding interviewing sources and press releases and update news online.[26] Lawrence Lessig has described this as the "read-write" nature of the Internet.[27]

“The resulting abundance of – and desire for more (and/or higher quality) – information has come to be perceived in some circles, paradoxically, as the source of as much productivity loss as gain."[28] Information Overload can lead to "information anxiety," which is the gap between the information we understand and the information that we think that we must understand. As people consume increasing amounts of information in the form of news stories, e-mails, blog posts, Facebook statuses, Tweets, Tumblr posts and other new sources of information, they become their own editors, gatekeepers, and aggregators of information.[29] One concern in this field is that massive amounts of information can be distracting and negatively impact productivity and decision-making. Another concern is the "contamination" of useful information with information that might not be entirely accurate (Information pollution). Research done is often done with the view that IO is a problem that can be understood in a rational way.[28]

General causes

The general causes of information overload include:

E-mail remains a major source of information overload, as people struggle to keep up with the rate of incoming messages. As well as filtering out unsolicited commercial messages (spam), users also have to contend with the growing use of email attachments in the form of lengthy reports, presentations and media files.[30]

A December 2007 New York Times blog post described E-mail as "a $650 Billion Drag on the Economy",[31] and the New York Times reported in April 2008 that "E-MAIL has become the bane of some people's professional lives" due to information overload, yet "none of [the current wave of high-profile Internet startups focused on email] really eliminates the problem of e-mail overload because none helps us prepare replies".[32]

In January 2011, Eve Tahmincioglu, a writer for MSNBC, wrote an article titled "Dealing with a bloated inbox." Compiling statistics with commentary, she reported that there were 294 billion emails sent each day in 2010, up 50 billion from 2009. Quoted in the article, workplace productivity expert Marsha Egan stated that people need to differentiate between working on e-mail and sorting through it. This meant that rather than responding to every email right away, users should delete unnecessary emails and sort the others into action or reference folders first. Egan then went on to say "We are more wired than ever before, and as a result need to be more mindful of managing email or it will end up managing us."[33]

The Daily Telegraph quoted Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review and the author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, as saying that email exploits a basic human instinct to search for new information, causing people to become addicted to "mindlessly pressing levers in the hope of receiving a pellet of social or intellectual nourishment". His concern is shared by Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, who stated that "instantaneous devices" and the abundance of information people are exposed to through e-mail and other technology-based sources could be having an impact on the thought process, obstructing deep thinking, understanding, impedes the formation of memories and makes learning more difficult. This condition of "cognitive overload" results in diminished information retaining ability and failing to connect remembrances to experiences stored in the long-term memory, leaving thoughts "thin and scattered".[34] This is also manifest in the education process.[35]

In addition to e-mail, the World Wide Web has provided access to billions of pages of information. In many offices, workers are given unrestricted access to the Web, allowing them to manage their own research. The use of search engines helps users to find information quickly. However, information published online may not always be reliable, due to the lack of authority-approval or a compulsory accuracy check before publication. This results in people having to cross-check what they read before using it for decision-making, which takes up more time. There are “enormous disproportions between the content of Internet sources and the possibility of processing them by the human brain.”[36]


Responses of business and government

Recent research suggests that an "attention economy" of sorts will naturally emerge from information overload,[37] allowing Internet users greater control over their online experience with particular regard to communication mediums such as e-mail and instant messaging. This could involve some sort of cost being attached to e-mail messages. For example, managers charging a small fee for every e-mail received – e.g. $1.00 – which the sender must pay from their budget. The aim of such charging is to force the sender to consider the necessity of the interruption. However, such a suggestion undermines the entire basis of the popularity of e-mail, namely that e-mails are free.

Economics often assumes that people are rational in that they have the knowledge of their preferences and an ability to look for the best possible ways to maximize his preferences. People are seen as selfish and focus on what pleases them. Looking at various parts on their own, results in the negligence of the other parts that work alongside it that create the effect of IO. Lincoln suggests possible ways to look at IO in a more holistic approach by recognizing the many possible factors that play a role in IO and how they work together to achieve IO.[28]

Dealing with information overload

There are various solutions that can be used to mitigate IO. It is difficult to say whether or not there is a solution that can solve the issue altogether, but many methods have been suggested.

Johnson advises discipline which helps mitigate interruptions and for the elimination of push or notifications. He explains that notifications pull people's attentions away from their work and into social networks and e-mails. He also advises that people stop using their iPhones as alarm clocks which means that the phone is the first thing that people will see when they wake up leading to people checking their e-mail right away.[38]

Clay Shirky states that:[39]

It's not information overload. It's filter failure.

The use of Internet applications and add-ons such as the Inbox Pause add-on for Gmail.[40] This add-on does not reduce the amount of e-mails that people get but it pauses the inbox. Burkeman in his article talks about the feeling of being in control is the way to deal with information overload which might involve self-deception. He advises to fight irrationality with irrationality by using add-ons that allow you to pause your inbox or produce other results. Reducing large amounts of information is key.

Dealing with IO from a social network site such as Facebook, a study done by Humboldt University[41] showed some strategies that students take to try and alleviate IO while using Facebook. Some of these strategies included: Prioritizing updates from friends who were physically farther away in other countries, hiding updates from less-prioritized friends, deleting people from their friends list, narrowing the amount of personal information shared, and deactivating the Facebook account.


Media scholars are conducting research to promote awareness of information overload. Kyunghye Kim, Mia Liza A. Lustria, Darrell Burke, and Nahyun Kwon conducted a study regarding people who have encountered information overload while searching for health information about cancer and what the impact on them was.[42] The conclusion drawn from the research discusses how health information should be distributed and that information campaigns should be held to prevent irrelevant or incorrect information being circulated on the internet.

Other than that, there are many books published to encourage awareness of information overload and to train the reader to process information more consciously and effectively. Books like "Surviving Information Overload" by Kevin A. Miller,[43] "Managing Information Overload" by Lynn Lively,[44] and "The Principle of Relevance" by Stefania Lucchetti all deal with the topic.[45]

Clay Johnson, the author of the book "The Information Diet", uses a metaphor for Information Overload by comparing the information we consume to a diet. The idea is that people tend to consume the information that they find to be interesting, which he says is similar to people "eating dessert first". The use of social networks, blogs, and online videos has accentuated this because people share what they find interesting with all their friends online causing it to spread. There is a need to create cheap, popular information and this is how the media has defined itself today; by producing information like this. He compares it to the food industry which industrialized and created incentives for producing a large amount of cheap, popular calories.[38]

The problem of organization

Illustration for an article[46] published in Diario Uno

Decision makers performing complex tasks have little if any excess cognitive capacity. Narrowing one's attention as a result of the interruption is likely to result in the loss of information cues, some of which may be relevant to completing the task. Under these circumstances, performance is likely to deteriorate. As the number or intensity of the distractions/interruptions increases, the decision maker's cognitive capacity is exceeded, and performance deteriorates more severely. In addition to reducing the number of possible cues attended to, more severe distractions/interruptions may encourage decision makers to use heuristics, take shortcuts, or opt for a satisficing decision, resulting in lower decision accuracy.[47]

Some cognitive scientists and graphic designers have emphasized the distinction between raw information and information in a form we can use in thinking. In this view, information overload may be better viewed as organization underload. That is, they suggest that the problem is not so much the volume of information but the fact that we can not discern how to use it well in the raw or biased form it is presented to us. Authors who have taken this tack include graphic artist and architect Richard Saul Wurman and statistician and cognitive scientist Edward Tufte. Wurman uses the term information anxiety to describe our attitude toward the volume of information in general and our limitations in processing it.[48] Tufte primarily focuses on quantitative information and explores ways to organize large complex datasets visually to facilitate clear thinking. Tufte's writing is important in such fields as information design and visual literacy, which deal with the visual communication of information. Tufte coined the term "chartjunk" to refer to useless, non-informative, or information-obscuring elements of quantitative information displays, such as the use of graphics to overemphasize the importance of certain pieces of data or information.[49]

Related terms

See also


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Further reading

External links

Media related to Information overload at Wikimedia Commons

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