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Addressing Cognitive Overload and Choice Overload

The Challenge of “Too Much Information” for Family Planning Programs

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:

  • Too much information and the daunting task of synthesising it
  • Lack of time to engage with large amounts of information
  • Poor presentation of information, making it difficult to mentally process and use

“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.”

  • Cognitive overload happens when too much information is presented in a way that is hard to understand, making it difficult for people to process and apply the information.
  • Choice overload happens when people are presented with too many choices at once, leading to potentially undesired outcomes—such as frustration and inaction.

More about Cognitive Overload Theory

Cognitive overload and the limits to retaining information in our short-term memory emerge from cognitive load theory. Cognitive load theory defines 3 types of cognitive loads:

  • Intrinsic Cognitive Load: This refers to the difficulty of mentally engaging with a particular subject matter or theme or topic.
  • Extraneous Cognitive Load: This refers to how information is presented and packaged (like reading a 200 page 18th century manuscript, with no executive summary or visuals!)
  • Germane Cognitive Load: This refers to the effort required to internalize knowledge in our permanent memory for subsequent use in the future (in other words, remembering all the stuff you read).

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.

More about Choice Overload Theory

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.

Why It Matters: The Impacts of Cognitive and Choice Overload

Detail from Cildo Meireles “Babel (2001)”: A tower of radios tuned to different channels creates noise without meaning. Image credit: Dan Pope, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gusset/32010544772

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:

  • It lacks relevant “how to” information—or the relevant information is surrounded by irrelevant information;
  • It is not contextualized or specific enough for their area of work, or
  • It is packaged in a way that makes it difficult to understand and use—so it’s unclear how to apply it to program decision-making.

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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/time-to-look/33382373821

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.

What Can We Do About It?

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:

  • Making information relevant: FP/RH professionals want to engage with information that is synthesized and relevant for their local programs. When sharing information, FP/RH programs should consider the applicability of that knowledge to people’s specific context. Ask yourself: Who can use these insights? Are there cultural considerations for programs to keep in mind? Let the answers drive how you present the information and where you share it.
  • Acknowledging different learning styles: The presentation of information is key, especially in how it breaks down complex or lengthy content into bite-sized chunks. In our co-creation workshops, most professionals were found to have a visual or aural learning style, but learning styles differed greatly. Knowledge solutions that acknowledge different learning styles can appeal to more professionals, and help them get information in formats they find easier to absorb. For example, we recently launched a new podcast with FP2030, Inside the FP Story, to explore the details of family planning programming. The audio format of the podcast will appeal especially to those who prefer to digest information by listening to it. A written transcript is also available for those who want to read while listening.
  • Centralizing information sources, when possible. Professionals across all regions expressed the challenges in searching for information from multiple sources. Having a go-to repository or database that categorizes different types of FP/RH information can ease the overload of choice that often makes the task of information search and sharing daunting. In June 2021, we will be launching FP insight, a new resource discovery platform that gives FP/RH professionals the tools they need to quickly and easily curate collections of information from across the web that are important to them.

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!

Maryam Yusuf

Associate, Busara Center for Behavioral Economics

As an Associate at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, Maryam has supported and led the design and implementation of behavioral research and interventions for social investment programs, financial inclusion, health care (primarily family planning and reproductive health), and agricultural resilience projects. Prior to Busara, Maryam worked as an Associate Consultant at Henshaw Capital Partners focusing on private equity advocacy and capacity building for subject matter experts (SMEs). She holds a BSc in Economics and Business Finance from Brunel University.