Information Overload as Evolutionary MaladaptationFebruary 10, 2010 at 7:30 am | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | 6 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.