Friday, March 11, 2011


Have you been faced lately with decisions you have to make about things such as buying a car, a health-care plan, figuring out what to do with money? Are YOU anxious because you don't know what to do about a job, politics, your health, or buying that new pair of shoes? Do you need a shrink, or should you be talking over these things with a friend?

Is too much stuff going on -- is it iinformation overload? The director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, Dr. Angelika Dimoka, suspects that a complicated biological phenomenon is at work.

To confirm it, she created a problem that overtaxed people's decision-making abilities, joining in with economists and computer scientists who study "combinatorial auctions,"

Huh? I figured she meant combined bunches of ideas to buy or not buy something. The Dr. Dimoka's article on information overload made me nervous -- she used fancy loaded words that I had to translate! I read on and saw that Angelika was referring to "bidding" wars, (not eBay bidding), situations where bidders consider a dizzying number of items that can be bought alone or bundled. The example that was chosen to test what happened to an overloaded mind was buying airport landing slots.

If you are thinking about buying a combination of them -- for instance, 100 landing slots at LAX -- you need to know passenger load, weather, connecting flights, space needed, space available, who buys slots for how much. Just beginning to think about this, you could become anxious and mentally exhausted, The result might be that you'd buy fewer slots, or maybe you'd pay too much for them, or just bow out of the deal.

Angelika Dimoka tested the prefrontal cortex of the human brain and saw that activity in it started falling off as more and more information was loaded until l the prefrontal cortex slowed down, and stopped -- stopped functioning completely, as if circuit breaker shorted-out.

I think we already know this happens to us. With phones and all our other handhelds and apps, and the flow of facts and information, we get flooded. .We can find out a used car's accident history, a doctor's malpractice record, a restaurant's health-inspection results, and compare prices in hundreds of places -- and soon, we're just not able to make decisions on anything -- on where to vacation; what college to go to, whom to date, what wristwatch to buy. And aside from too much information, you've got friends, who are giving you advice, and suggesting books they've read on the subject.

In the 17th century, scholars bemoaned the horrible mass of books that was growing. In 1729 Alexander Pope warned -- "A deluge of authors cover the land."

Nowadays, is it possible to absorb even a small fraction of what's out there? It's so much -- the fact is, the Oxford English Dictionary actually added the phrase " Information Fatigue in 2009.

During the BP oil well crisis, 400 emails of texts, advice, reports were arriving every day at their offices. Their experts have said they might have found a solution sooner if they hadn't had to deal with all those things that were people were advising. It's been suggested that maybe Mubarak would have resigned as President of Egypt earlier, if there hadn't been so much news, so many (too many reports), too much media, too many opinions.

When people are given information about 50 rather than 10 options in an online store, they often choose lower-quality options. When we make decisions, we compare bundles of information. So a decision is harder if the amount of information you have to juggle is greater. And more and more choices. are being offered for everything from mustard to socks.

A key reason for information's diminishing returns is the limited capacity of the brain's working memory. It can hold roughly seven items, (which is why seven-digit phone numbers were a great idea).

Anything more must be processed into long-term memory. And the brain, then, because of overload, struggles to figure out what to keep and what to disregard.

And then, there's the latest newest, stuff -- the false God of recency" -- what is currently IN.

Hey, is all this is making you feel worse, more stuck than you felt before you started reading this post?

Why not remove yourself from the information influx? Why not let your unconscious turn it over. Why not turn off your handhelds -- don't think -- take a shower or go for a walk?.

I'm not sure that Angelika and her experts would approve, but quite often with NO information, suddenly I know -- I just feel what I ought to do, so I'm ending this post now, I'm off to the shower.


Unknown said...

I think this Angelika Dimoka is full of it. If that is the "Test" she chose, landing slots, I wouldn't be surprised if she tested people who were not in the airline business. That info over load wouldn't be any different than putting a first year med student in an operating room and expecting them to perform a by-pass. Info overload is what our government uses to keep us in the dark about so many things. We couldn't possible absorb all the options for health care, the budget, etc, so keep the little mushrooms in the dark, feed them a little fertilizer once in a while, and all are happy. Frankly, people can process more than you may think, and when there is too much information available, sometimes you have to delegate to scale it down. But, I am unaware of anyone who would rather have limited options that all the options. Whether it is treatment for cancer, or what shoes to buy...give me all the facts, please, and let me decide.

Tammy Westbrook said...

Excellent post, Emily! In recent years, I have become more and more interested in the phenomena of teacher burnout and, from personal experience, am convinced that the problem of mental and emotinal overload is systemic. Yet, it is not being acknowledged or addressed. Thank you for sharing Dr. Dimoka's research.