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Expired · 8th May 2011
Ray Grigg
The information that saturates our modern world should increase our ability to address the many critical environmental challenges demanding our attention. But new psychological studies suggest that all this information may be more debilitating than helpful. The plethora of facts, opinions, news items and scientific data enveloping us from a persistent and pervasive barrage of electronic, print and auditory media may be overwhelming our ability to decide and act.

Researchers analyzing the effects of such information overload are able to track its impact on our brains by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to actually observe "the activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions" (Newsweek, Mar. 7/11). Too much information and too many choices causes this portion of the cortex to stop functioning in a condition termed "information fatigue". People in this condition either fail to make decisions or the ones they do make are less reasoned and sensible. Mistakes and procrastination cause frustration and anxiety to soar.

When this psychological phenomenon is applied to the complex environmental issues confronting us, we can begin to understand why decisions are so difficult to make and why corrective measures seem to proceed so slowly. Many people are simply confounded by the number and complexity of choices confronting them. Is buying a new and fuel-efficient car better than keeping an older and less efficient one? Should the car option be abandoned in favour of a bicycle or public transit? When flying has such a high carbon dioxide impact, should international travel to vacations and relatives be abandoned? Given the greenwashing that takes place in marketing, what products can be trusted as ecologically benign? When pesticides, pollution and processed foods seem ubiquitous, how do we choose healthy and safe diets? As energy demand increases, what sources do we condemn and endorse? Or should we just wait for the arrival of a saving technology? What are the practical limits of a philosophy of "refuse, reuse and recycle".

While the information that saturates our world presents us with innumerable dilemmas, it also informs us that each individual decision we make is important because the cumulative effect steers the direction of industries and markets, ecologies and climate, even civilizations and history. Indeed, each decision we make is imbued with influence and power.

In analyzing our decision making processes when we are overwhelmed with information, psychologists have identified four distinct effects (Ibid.). First is a "failure to decide", a consequence of the information load being "debilitating". Marketers have discovered that too many choices of toothpaste, breakfast cereal or snack foods so immobilize consumers with options that they choose nothing. So, too, people can be so overcome by the complexity of the environmental issues before them that they are immobilized.

The second effect of information overload is "diminishing returns". The human memory has difficulty working with more than about seven items at a time. Further information has to be stored in long-term rather than short-term memory, a process that impairs decision making. Add the continual and rapid arrival of new information to decision making and the experience can be overwhelming. "The ceaseless influx [of new information] trains us to respond instantly, sacrificing accuracy and thoughtfulness to the false god of immediacy," writes Sharon Begley in her Newsweek article. And whenever we do make decisions, they can be invalidated by the instant arrival of more current information, a disquieting effect that further impairs decision making.

The third effect of information overload is "recency" over "quality" – because we are wired "to notice change over stasis", we tend to give greater weight to the most recent information we receive. "We're fooled by immediacy and quantity and think it's quality. What starts driving decisions is the urgent rather than the important," notes Eric Kessler in Begley's article. Indeed, we are psychologically inclined to give equal weight to all information we receive. Impulse buying operates on this principle. In the salmon farming controversy now occupying so much attention on the West Coast, the phenomenon of recency explains why the industry always responds to every reasoned criticism or scientific study questioning the environmental wisdom of growing fish in open net-pens – the last impression, no matter how trivial or irrelevant, always carries a disproportionately high influence.

The "neglected unconscious" is a fourth consideration Begley explores. We need time to process information if we are to arrive at creative and wise decisions. This requires a retreat from the complexity and constant influx of new input so the "subconscious" can sort, process and integrate the collected information. Some must be ignored. Urgency and hurry subverts this valuable process ‹ "Act now or miss this incredible opportunity!" is an invitation to a bad decision. The sensible ecological and economic principle of protecting a park is eroded by a tempting business proposal. The 2008 gasoline panic that rushed the decision to make fuel by converting valuable food products such as corn into ethanol is a model example of an ill-considered reflex to a complex energy problem.

The psychological dynamics of information overload helps to explain why we make foolish environmental decisions or why we may not even undertake necessary action. Explanations, however, are not substitutes for excuses. Even if our rapidly changing and complex world is saturated with information, this doesn't excuse us from making helpful choices. Indeed, as environmental threats intensify, almost any thoughtful choice will be helpful.