Information Overload and Social Media, Part 2
This post is part of a series on social media and media literacy. To read part one of this two-parter on information overload, click here! To see all of our media literacy related posts, please click here.
In the previous post, I discussed how our brains actively work against us on a good day when it comes to critically evaluating information we consume from social media. But when we are overwhelmed, stressed, or feeling the effects of information overload, those automated cognitive processes kick into overdrive and further sabotage our critical thinking skills. I don’t want to call our brains “lazy”, because they aren’t, but they are really great at eliminating information that it doesn’t want to process.
What is an automated cognitive process? It’s a sequence of cognitive activities that is automatically initiated in response to input.
One of the ways our brains automates processes is called the Law of Closure. Basically, our brains will complete a picture or story in the way that is easiest for us to process, even if we don’t have all the details. One example is the World Wildlife Federation’s panda logo. It’s not a life-like image of panda, it’s some blobs that our brains complete as a panda. The same goes for news stories, both political and tabloid. We read a headline, and then our brains will complete the story in whatever we makes us feel the most comfortable. When you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store, and you see a headline that says “Famous actor leaves wife for nanny!” you automatically have a story in your head about what happened, regardless of any backstory, details, or other information presented.
While we scroll social media and see memes, headlines, and commentary by our friends, our brains are primed to take that little bit of information and form a story that fits in line with our already held beliefs and within our comfort zone. Our brain feels satisfied, and we don’t feel the need to look into it any further.
Another automated processes is information satisficing. Information satisficing is a term that combines the words satisfied and sufficing, and means that when we’re busy or unconcerned with the right answer, we will accept whatever answer is in front of us.
You’ve probably heard the term “cognitive dissonance” before. When you are presented with new information that conflicts with information you already believe to be true, it can make your body feel under attack. This feeling is called “cognitive dissonance”. Our brains processes conflicting information as a threat, and unfortunately it doesn’t distinguish between physical and mental threats. Under threat, our brain automatically goes into “fight or flight” mode, and starts acting as if we’re being chased by a bear. When our fight or flight response is activated, we are less likely to respond favorably to information that conflicts with what we want to be true or with deeply held beliefs even when presented with facts. (source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/cognitive-dissonance)
While doing internet research on a topic, it’s likely that our selective distortion and retention processes will kick in. We can type in our topic to our favorite search engine, and our brains will seek out the headlines and we will click on the links that reinforce our already held belief on the subject. Our brains will also conveniently forget that there were even links available with information we don’t want or like. Studies have shown that people will find the link that agrees with them, and believe what it says regardless of reliability of sources or validity of the website host. (source: https://dictionary.apa.org/selective-retention)
All of the automatic processes are in place to reduce cognitive load, and they’re helpful in most cases. We don’t want to have to think about things that we have to do on a regular basis. They’re there to free up our mental capacity for other activities, but they actively work against us when trying to process new information. This is especially so when we are already facing information overload.
How do we fight them? We acknowledge that they’re there, and we take active steps to overcome them.
- We seek out trustworthy, valid sources from different viewpoints to try to develop a well-rounded view of a subject. A good way to do this is to find your subject on websites like https://www.allsides.com/unbiased-balanced-news, https://abridgenews.com, or https://www.thethreadweekly.com/.
- We try to ignore and scroll past inflammatory opinion pieces and derogatory memes and internet imagery because they will never give a full picture or background on the information presented.
- We can seek out our information from verified sources instead of waiting for a social media algorithm to feed us what it thinks we want to see. Choose your media sources carefully and consult those sources instead of clickbait and sensational social media headlines.
- We recognize that the feeling we get when presented with information that is counter to what we want to be true or that is counter to our deeply held beliefs is a false danger signal, and then take steps to gain more information about the information to develop a deeper understanding.
- Limit your time on social media to eliminate information overload, or snooze some of the news outlets or people in your feed that seem to crowd it with stressful amounts of information. This has the potential to create a bubble of information that may skew your view of current events, but will free up mental space to think critically about the information you do consume.
It’s unfortunate that our brains seem ill-equipped to handle the amounts of information we receive daily. When you think about the amount of time our brains have been instinctively trying to keep the human species alive, this glut of information that we face now is a new development and we haven’t had generations to develop new tools to get through information overload. Fortunately we can take active steps to prevent information overload and to prevent our automatic cognitive processes from taking over.