Maryam Yusuf, an Associate with Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, shares research on cognitive overload and choice overload, offers insights from co-creation workshops, and suggests considerations for sharing information without overwhelming audiences.
Picture filling a cup with too much water. What happens? … The excess water runs over the edge and is wasted. The same thing happens when a person’s mind tries to process too much information: the excess also “spills over” and is lost. Some assessments show the mind can only deal with seven pieces of information each minute.
Avoiding this kind of waste is important to how Knowledge SUCCESS shares timely and relevant information for optimizing family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) programs and initiatives. We don’t want to overwhelm our audience or waste information—so we synthesize and deliver it in formats that can be well-received and used.
We heard from FP/RH professionals around the world, through our behavioral science research and co-creation workshops, that FP/RH information shared at the global level isn’t always relevant to their local setting. While some FP/RH professionals reported a lack of the types of information they need to do their jobs, others, particularly US-based professionals, reported there was too much information and not enough time to engage with it.
Across all regions, the main barriers to speeding up adoption of evidence and best practices in FP/RH programs were:
“A lot of data is available on technical aspects of FP but when it comes to how to reach people and what’s worked, that’s where the data is limited or non-existent.” (FP/RH Professional, Knowledge SUCCESS co-creation workshop)
In the behavioral science field, these barriers are referred to as “cognitive overload” and “choice overload.”
Most of the challenges around cognitive load are related to the complexity of information (intrinsic cognitive load) and navigating the various ways information is presented (extraneous cognitive load). In addition, the extent of intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load affects how well we internalize and retain information in our long-term memory (germane cognitive load).
Some of the earliest studies on cognitive overload found that dealing with excessive information in the workplace not only delayed and hindered the ability to make decisions for 43% of professional managers studied, but also negatively affected personal relationships.
Choice overload stems from similar psychological reasoning as cognitive overload, but the difference is “too many options” vs. “too much information.” When confronted with too many choices, people tend to go with the default option or to put off making a choice—even not buying a product or doing an action. Too many choices has also been associated with unhappiness and “decision fatigue”—after continuously making decisions, people begin to make less accurate or beneficial decisions. A simple but well-known study by Iyengar et al (2000) showed how shoppers in an upscale supermarket responded to a varied selection of jam choices. When shoppers were presented with a large variety of jam flavors and coupons, only 3% of shoppers made a decision to purchase—compared to 30% of shoppers who were offered a smaller variety of jam options.
Cognitive Overload: A tower of radios tuned to different channels creates noise without meaning.
Image credit: Dan Pope via Flickr Creative Commons
Insights from the Knowledge SUCCESS behavioral science research and co-creation workshops show that cognitive overload is a key barrier to FP/RH professionals using and applying the information they find to inform their programs. Program managers, technical advisors, and decision makers alike reported that they often face difficulties with applying the information they find, because:
This means that FP/RH programs are not benefiting fully from the wealth of information and knowledge that the field has gained over decades of implementation of diverse programs.
Food choice overload in a market in Tunxi City, China.
Image credit: Ted McGrath via Flickr Creative Commons
In our co-creation workshops, FP/RH professionals reported that choice overload (for example, being faced with multiple and often scattered sources of information) leads to indecision and frustration. Many FP/RH professionals reported that, given so many choices, they felt unable to choose which lessons and experience to incorporate into their program activities for better impact. These feelings of frustration and overwhelm can lead to delaying a decision, making a poor decision, or even avoiding decision-making altogether.
Now that we have identified the problem of cognitive and choice overload, we can tailor new knowledge management solutions to address the problem. Key recommendations from our workshops include:
We live in a globalized world with an abundance of information. This can be both thrilling and unnerving. Incorporating some of these key takeaways into how we sort and present information should reduce the pressures on our cognitive processes—and hopefully make our experiences with knowledge management more exciting than nerve-racking!