Information Overload as Evolutionary Maladaptation

February 10, 2010 at 7:30 am | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | 7 Comments

I’ve noticed much that’s written about information overload starts from an assumption that a root cause of the problem is with humankind (or a particular sub-species known as “information workers” that lives in fuzzy cubes and whitewashed caves) and its inability to adjust to the rapid increase in content.  This type of argument is known as evolutionary psychology.  And it has proven to provide overly simplistic answers to behavioral questions.  The WSJ article “Evolutionary Psych May Not Help Explain Our Behavior After All” referred to the book “Adapting Minds” and stated that “as Prof. Buller, a professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, dug deeper, he concluded that the claims of evo psych are ‘wrong in almost every detail’ because the data underlying them are deeply flawed.”

Information overload also adds the idea of evolutionary maladaptation, even though I haven’t seen that term used explicitly. But that’s clearly the argument being used – that the response of information workers to the proliferation of information is an evolutionary maladaptation, like that of humans being designed to seek and store fat to prepare for times of famine that never come in the developed world.  The evolutionary maladaptation assumption silently underlies many of the studies, articles, and books related to information overload, e-mail overload, dangerous multi-tasking, and information stress.

But maybe it’s not true.  And that matters because it changes where one looks for solutions.

If you believe information overload is a maladaptation than solutions – fancy and detailed as they may be – really just boil down to resisting destructive urges.  Or, as Lee Gomes of the WSJ worded it “I don’t have much to offer in the way of solutions, save to nag everyone about steely self-discipline.”  If this is an example of humans being wired for self-destructive behavior, then it leads to lots of “protect you from yourself” advice.

But if, by chance, information overload is within the realm of consciousness and under rational control, different solutions apply.  Process change becomes feasible since people can be be told what to do and have as much chance as any other process change of succeeding.  No subconscious, caveman instinct (“Ugh, more information always good! May help me kill sabre tooth tiger or mate with woman!”) will get in the way of altering people’s behavior. Providing technology that enables new functionality (not just for putting blinders on you, locking you out, etc.) has a chance of working too.

I don’t have the definitive answer, and I’m not sure there is one.  But I do think that the same answers to “the information overload problem” (in quotes since I take a different angle on the issue) keep popping up because the same evolutionary maladaptation assumption is used.  Trying a different assumption – one that puts the issue within the realm of higher reason to manage – can yield some different answers that should be explored.



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  1. […] take any of those 3 I can get.  My claim is based on my February 10th blog posting “Information Overload as Evolutionary Maladaptation” and a WSJ editorial just 2 days later by Daniel Akst’s called “The iPad Could […]

  2. I like Clay Shirky’s take on it – that the information overload problem (at least as it pertains to email)is an email filtering problem, not an information overload problem. His video can be seen here:

    My comments on how to start addressing the email overload problem in a corporate setting are in my blog:

  3. I hadn’t seen that video, but it’s good food for thought. I’ll have to blog on my full thoughts. Defining information overload as a filter issue captures half the problem according to my Enterprise Attention Management model. It captures the “pushing information back” (attention shielding) part, but not the “pulling information forward” part. Unless he means the filter is applied in both directions, which didn’t come out in this speech.

    I hadn’t seen your email solution before. I like it – recognizing that there are different types of messages could certainly help.

  4. […] | Leave a Comment Jacob Ukelson of Actionbase recently had some good comments on my posting “Information Overload as Evolutionary Maladaptation“: Clay Shirky’s take on it is that the information overload problem (at least as it […]

  5. I believe the maladaptation is at the level of the organizational culture, not the individual knowledge worker. Culture evolves much more slowly than technology; the growing ability to share info 24×7 has yet to meet with an adaptation of cultural mores and expectations as to what and when it may be inappropriate to share.

    That said, I think much of the problem is within the realm of consciousness and under rational control, so I definitely think it can be mitigated.

    • Good point – it’s the organizational culture (not life on Earth in general) that bred workers to behave a certain way, then can’t change quick enough to adjust to the new environment.

      Business culture may adapt only slightly faster than, say, humans evolving extra thumbs for texting …

  6. […] Jacob Ukelson of Actionbase recently had some good comments on my posting “Information Overload as Evolutionary Maladaptation“: […]

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