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How to deal with information overload?

n the graphic, a person standing under an umbrella with binary code raining down

Information overload (IOL) refers to a psychological state in which an overload of information hampers task performance

Our researchers among the authors of an important article

Let's start treating the information space with the same care with which we try to care for the natural environment – this is the main idea of ​​the article "Protect our environment from information overload", which was published in the journal "Nature Human Behavior". The authors of the text include researchers from the Warsaw University of Technology.

Information overload is researched by the international OMINO project team, focused on overcoming multi-level information overload, funded by the Horizon Europe Framework Programme and coordinated by the Faculty of Physics at the Warsaw University of Technology. The research involves experts from Poland, Germany, the UK, Austria, Slovenia, Israel, Japan, Singapore, and the USA.

A publication in "Nature Human Behavior" is one of the results of the research. Amongst its authors are: Prof. Janusz Hołyst (OMINO project leader) and Dr. Julian Sienkiewicz from the Faculty of Physics at the Warsaw University of Technology, and Prof. Przemysław Biecek from the Faculty of Mathematics and Information Sciences at the same university.

A photo of the authors of the article from the Warsaw University of Technology, as listed from left to right, Prof. Janusz Hołyst, Prof. Przemysław Biecek, and Dr. Julian Sienkiewicz

The authors of the article from the Warsaw University of Technology, as listed from left to right,  Prof. Janusz Hołyst, Prof. Przemysław Biecek, and Dr. Julian Sienkiewicz

What is IOL?

Fifty years ago, smoking factory chimneys, indicating a country's industrialization, were one of the symbols of civilizational progress. Now we know that smog kills, and we fight against this phenomenon. Twenty years ago, another symbol of progress became the widespread access to information. Now, we are slowly starting to understand that the information reaching us also leads to negative effects.

In the era of ubiquitous access to internet-connected devices, most of us instinctively feel what information overload (IOL) is. In the literature, IOL is defined as a psychological state where an excess of information makes performing tasks difficult. Due to the problem's multidimensional nature, it's challenging to provide a single, coherent definition that encompasses its complexity.

The network of connections

So far, it has been possible to identify at least three levels at which the negative impact of IOL can be observed. The first is the cognitive level, related to individuals and their individual actions resulting from consuming information. The second level includes interactions and decisions made at the group level. The broadest is the social context, where the mechanisms of the information creation cycle, its processing, and dissemination collide.

"The flow of information can be seen as a multi-level network, where the nodes represent individuals, groups, and entire societies, and the connections between them reflect the interactions occurring among them" – according to the authors of the article "Protect our environment from information overload".

This is a typical example of a complex system with dynamics that can differ depending on whether it is analyzed at a micro or macro scale. Based on this, researchers hypothesize, drawing on phase transition theory, that while the transition to a state of information overload might occur smoothly in a single-level system, the integration of several levels could lead to abrupt changes.

A costly problem

The destructive impact of IOL (Information Overload) is easily observed in daily life. For instance, look at any team where several members unsuccessfully try to manage the influx of information coming from everywhere. This situation leads to a specific type of paralysis due to the inability to efficiently process information, straining the communication chain and reducing the group's overall productivity.

Americans estimate that information overload results in losses amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars. The costs related to mental health are hard to quantify but easy to name—fatigue, concentration and memory problems, and a sense of threat not just from the overload of information but also from uncertainties about its reliability.

It can be said that we all, in fact, lose out due to "information pollution", just as with the contamination of air, water, and soil.

Immediate action is required.

To ensure that the costs of widespread access to information do not begin to outweigh the benefits, we should draw from experiences related to economic development and ecology. As the authors in "Nature Human Behaviour" suggest, the human ecosystem has evolved and been enriched with an informational sphere, now an integral part of our lives. Information is a modern symbol of wealth, just as factories were in the past. Without responsible management of the information sphere—maintaining a good balance between quantity and quality, transparency, and a certain hygiene of data—society will face increasingly serious consequences of information overload.

The call to action is straightforward—research, educate, and care for legislation related to the information sphere.

The article "Protect our environment from information overload" published in "Nature Human Behaviour" (IF=29.9) is available on www.nature.com