We are bombarded daily with information overload; texts, emails, and endless choices about what to order from the multitude of choices on the average menu board. It never ceases to amaze me how vast amounts of information can transform seemingly easy choices—like ordering a cup of coffee at Starbucks—into amazingly befuddling moments for people. There is a simple explanation for this phenomenon: we are trying to process more information than our brain is designed to handle at any given time. When our brain is over-stimulated, and our nervous system engages, we get what is more commonly known as “analysis paralysis.”
At most, our conscious mind can focus and retain three or four things simultaneously. Beyond that point, exposure to more information than the brain can process at one time rapidly diminishes our ability to focus, increases our stress levels, and reduces our ability to make choices. Ultimately, when we cannot endure any longer, they overwhelm us, and we choose things that are less than ideal.
What approach works best when we are experiencing this type of overwhelming situation? Is it to exploit what we already know to make a choice or step out of our routine and explore new possibilities? Let’s take a look at both strategies.
Exploiting What We Already Know
Taking advantage of what we already know can optimize our performance with respect to the current task at hand. The sections of the brain used in optimizing current performance and reward-seeking are triggered, narrowing the field of choices to what we know best as a means of being efficient in the pursuit of a reward (the choice). Taking advantage of what we know can also be valuable as a means of making more routine and less complicated choices, as it pushes us toward maintaining balance as the best means of making a choice while seeing the world through a familiar lens. The downside is that we miss seeing what could be over the horizon—trying something new and what might be hidden, leading to rash judgments made with familiar biases when the choice is more complicated.
Exploration Beyond What We Already Know
Opening up our minds and engaging in the process of exploration gives us a chance to “psychologically distance” ourselves from the quagmire of details surrounding the choice and consider it in a more abstract way. The process of exploration and abstraction triggers the parts of the brain that are responsible for our attention control features and the executive functioning areas of our brain that are tasked with managing new situations. Distancing ourselves and beginning the process of exploring beyond what we already know sharpens our focus and allows us to disengage from the routine thinking and take a needed pause to discover something that we didn’t know we wanted or come up with an innovative way of solving a problem. We become more flexible, adaptable, and less risk-averse.
Both strategies can combat information overload—in varying degrees and under certain circumstances—and are highly dependent on the outcome being sought. Figuring out which way you need to go will depend on what the choice is. Regardless of which one you decide to try, realize that any choice to reduce the bombardment will help you reduce stress and anxiety and make better choices.