A stranger’s tweet with no proof has the power to shock & anger us. We discuss why people are addicted to information, and how information overload is affecting us & the society today.
Today we live in a world where we are surrounded by information of all sorts – from short videos, text and images, audio notes… just unlimited vivid content which is constantly bombarded to us by our friends and family, social media feeds, alerts and notifications. Almost everything seems to be unique, breaking, live, limited… as if our life depends upon it.
Why We Like to Overload Ourselves with Information
Before I talk more about how this information overload is influencing us today, let’s try to understand our brain and how it processes this information.
Causes of Information Overload
One of our basic needs is to be safe and secure our future. For this, we are in constant search of information so that we can keep ourselves aware of the dangers we are about to face. The other key need that humans have is a need of passing on information about themselves or their thoughts or what I like to call the need for spreading self-information. But the key point is that we like spreading our wisdom (whether it’s originally ours or not) nonetheless.
So if you consider these two needs of survival and spreading information, you can find a correlation as they support the one another. In today’s times as well as in the past, the media business thrives upon these needs of ours. Media channels are most often filled with news which makes you insecure, making you conscious about your surroundings, thus motivating you to seek more related information.
The best example of this is the news updates about the number of new Coronavirus cases and deaths. These are currently filling up each newspaper, social media and website. Only the most shocking or scary analysis of these numbers is often presented, so that the audiences are scared and angered, glued to the source, coming back to see if they are becoming worse.
Social media, on the other hand, helps you to create information (self images, opinions, videos) about yourself and sharing it with the world. It also helps you spread others’ information other’s information as if it’s your own. It’s common to see the same images being retweeted, copied and pasted on websites, passed around Whatsapp without mentioning the original source. People passing third party information think that they are influencing the people around them. However, they are just succumbing to our need of spreading information.
Why is Information Overload a Problem
By re-sharing and forwarding information, we have distanced ourselves intellectually from each other. Most of the information is very superficial. For example, somebody may have created a video that provides shortcuts to achieve success, but without detailing with any analogical examples. Our brain loves these quick bits of information as it does not need to process much.
Such informational content is generally viral as our brain accepts without much questioning, as it’s made to believe that someone has already done a lot of research behind it. Our brain works in such a way that it wants to process the least amount of information; else it will be exhausting itself. Thus many times, it creates stereotypes or has pre-judged the outcomes that don’t require much analysis.
When we are children, we like to question everything. Being curious makes us find original sources and verify the information. As we grow up, we try less to discover things ourselves, and get used to being bombarded with information without questioning. That’s why adults are more likely to face the challenge of information overload than kids.
Over the period, we gradually keep losing our ability to make decisions based on facts that we have discovered ourselves. Today we want different information media, recommendation engines, AI algorithms to suggest us options and eventually make the decisions for us, as many at a time as possible.
The most common example of this includes Amazon, which recommends us products based on our searches and past purchases, Netflix that does the same with movies and TV shows, and Facebook which automatically fills our feeds with articles or web links based on our likes. All these algorithms ensure we find more of what we like and never have to come across what we don’t like (or at least won’t click).
The business of media depends on this. So they keep creating content that either makes us insecure, information could pass on as our own which is intended to influence others, and create information about ourselves that makes us believe that we have now etched our thoughts in the book of history.
Why we Need Information Detox
Information overload is making us so dependent and addicted to content – weather it’s on demand or whether is pushed to us – that are losing our analytical and deductive skills. We have stopped questioning rationale and are judging based on shallow conclusions.
Information is today being used to sedate ourselves, it’s the new replacement for sleeping pills. We need to strain our eyes in front of a small screen before it puts us to sleep. Every moment we see a vivid image or read a sensational text, information is being absorbed. There’s hardly any processing or reasoning. We are even sedating our kids, so that they don’t bother us. Gone are the days when they would go out in the sun and hurt themselves and learn from real experiences.
Today, we are today confusing information with knowledge, and difference between them is extremely subjective.
Simply said, information overload is an addictive poison for our brain, and that’s why I call the abstinence from it “information detox”. So how do we detoxify ourselves with this information overload?
How to Do Information Detox?
Let’s go over a few ways on how to avoid information overload:
Trick Your Brain to Crave Less Information
When our brain sees a colored video or image, compared to a monochrome video or image, it processes much more information. So try to cut down on watching color, and shift to monochrome or b/w content. This will make information less appealing to our brains, and it’ll start craving less and less of it.
Think of it like this: if suddenly fries and Coke started tasting worse and worse every time, you’ll soon stop craving them, right? When you attempt this, you may have withdrawal symptoms in the beginning, so it’s easier to migrate to image screens with low saturation. This method is called “wean off”.
Verify Information Sources
Next is to verify information sources. We tend to believe content that is either shocking, or brings out a strong emotion, usually anger. Also, our brain loves to believe content that is structured or presented nicely and where delivery of content is crisp and short, as it’s quickly absorbed by our brains. Be cautious of such content. If you are just taking content at its face value, it’s most likely telling you half the truth.
Just like our bodies, we need to exercise our minds, too. Viral and short bursts of content are like fried food or soft drinks, they can easily absorb and thus are addictive in nature. Detailed content like text and reports are hard to process and digest, and making sense of them requires effort.
Find Out Who Monetarily Benefits from the Information You Consume
How to deal with information overload? Information detox can further be done by questioning the basics and having the courage to diverge from the crowd. These are often difficult questions and where you won’t find a straight. For example, I have been seeing this campaign which says “Mutual Fund Sahi Hai” (gets translated in English to, “Mutual Funds are the right choice”). It gets repeated so many times across all media channels, which makes me question the blatant claim. This excessive use of the claim makes me feel that somebody in some office is just trying to mass brainwash a whole generation.
Today, if you are a divergent in the crowd and question this, you may be laughed at, as people who may have invested in mutual funds would also want you to invest, so that they don’t go down alone. If it would have been highly profitable, I doubt you be getting a lot of recommendations or someone wouldn’t need to oversell it.
So the best idea is to always question whenever any information is presented to you, ask yourself who may be gaining from such a message. Most information that we receive is for somebody else’s gain. It may not be easy to decipher who is benefiting the most from it, as most marketing is done in the form of viral or easily consumable content these content. But asking yourself that help you limiting the influence of it on your mind.
Be Curious for Knowledge, not Information
Most of us think that we can’t be influenced easily, but we do get influenced gradually. When we see something repeatedly, we too get influenced at a subconscious level. What we need is to be cognizant of our mental limitations of being gullible to viral content, so that we don’t get swayed easily by information overload. We need to work our brains more and question fundamentals just like a child, else this mental laziness will someday make forget our basics human nature of being curious.
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Abhishek Sareen is a marketing professional with over 16 years of experience. He started his career as a management consultant and currently works in international business. He has set up businesses like Track & Trail, BrooksBicycles.com and created consumer brands like Montra, Machcity and Roadeo. He’s is a passionate cyclist and participated in several endurance competitive events like MTB Himalaya. His interests are in behavioral psychology, economics and chess. He is a graduate in Computer Science and an MBA in Marketing. He completed his executive education from IIM-A in 2016 focusing on business strategy.