7.5. Information Overload
As Calvin Mooers told us back in 1959, people may not want information, because having it can be painful and troublesome. When it comes to information, sometimes less is more, as we see in Figure 7-3. We know this explicitly from studies that show an inverted-U relationship between the volume of information and decision quality. In fact, a recent study at Kings College in London showed that information overload harms concentration more than marijuana.[*] We also know this tacitly from experience. We have all felt overwhelmed by details, and we all choose, every day of our lives, to ignore vast quantities of data.
[*] "Info-overload harms concentration more than marijuana." New Scientist, April 30, 2005, p. 6. Available at http://www.newscientist.com/channel/being-human/mg18624973.400.
Figure 7-3. The inverted U
We choose not to choose. We rely on habit. We trust familiar brands. We copy our colleagues. But the decisions only multiply fastereducation, entertainment, insurance, investmentwe are inundated with products, services, plans, and promotions. And it makes us miserable. As Barry Schwartz explains in The Paradox of Choice:
As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety....But clinging tenaciously to all choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfactioneven to clinical depression.
] And the results are not good. Consider the following statistics: according to a National Institutes of Health study, in 1997, the U.S. public spent $36-$47 billion on the complementary and alternative medicines and therapies listed in Figure 7-4.[*] Of this amount, $12-$20 billion was paid out of pocket, including $5 billon on herbal products.
[*] National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines (NCCAM), http://nccam.nih.gov/news/camsurvey_fs1.htm.
Figure 7-4. Complementary and alternative medicines (NCCAM, http://nccam.nih.gov/news/camsurvey_fs1.htm)
That's a lot of money, particularly when it comes on top of the $1.5 trillion we already spend on health insurance, doctor's visits, and prescription medicines. In spite of my recent awakening to the power of mind-body, my guess is that more than half of this money is wasted, though I must admit I'm not certain which half. Or perhaps people are simply paying a high price for the placebo effect. In any event, what we're witnessing is a divergence of beliefs, as information and decision overload induces stress-related problems while simultaneously reducing our ability to identify and manage root causes.
Because our trust in authority has eroded, we must find our own solutions. We select our sources. We choose our news. But since we're swimming in information, our decision quality is poor. So, how do we stop from drowning? We fall back on instinct. We retreat from data. We drop pull and endure push. We pay attention only to messages that find us. And when we do search, we skim. A keyword or two into Google, a few good hits, and we're done. We satisfice with reckless abandon, waffling back and forth between too much information and not enough. And, we make some very bad decisions as individuals, organizations, and societies. But wait. It gets worse. You don't know the half of it.