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Change and Information Overload: negative effects

The most important characteristic of our present society may well the incredible speed with which it changes. Whether things evolve in a positive or in a negative way, change itself constitutes a problem. Scientific, technological, cultural and social innovation are taking place at such a breath-taking pace that no one can really keep up with them. Yesterday's revolutionary new product has become common-place today, and will be outdated tomorrow. People constantly need to revise their skills in order to adapt to the changing circumstances. The problems of unemployment and growing disparity between richer and poorer classes in most Western nations are largely due to the fact that not everybody can cope as well with this need for constant re-education. As traditional agricultural and industrial jobs are disappearing, employees need to adapt to the intellectually much more demanding jobs of the information society. Many lack the necessary educational background. Even the intellectually most advanced groups, the researchers, educators, managers and technologists, often feel overwhelmed by the changes in their domain.

Individual effects of change

It is intuitively obvious that too much change will put a strain on people and organizations. The futurologist Alvin Toffler (1970) has made a detailed study of the acceleration of change and its psychological effects. He suggested that it would lead to a set of severe physical and mental disturbances, which he called the "future shock" syndrome. Just like people exposed to war or disaster may develop a nervous breakdown ("shell-shock"), people exposed to the rapid changes of modern life may develop a state of helplessness and inadequacy.

Researchers have indeed found a positive correlation between change and physical illness. The "Life Change Scale" is a psychological tool which measures the amount of change experienced by a person over a given time interval (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). The "Life Change" questionnaire asks people to mark on a list which important changes they recently underwent: move to a new home, a new job, marriage, divorce, birth of a child, death of a family member, travel, promotion, etc. The total score for a person is calculated as the sum of all changes that the person experienced, multiplied by their relative weights. Using this scale, it was shown that individuals with high life change scores are significantly more likely to fall ill. More surprisingly, it turned out that illness correlates with all changes, positive (such as marriage or promotion) as well as negative (such as divorce or job loss).

The way change affects our physical state is evidently through its effects on our mental state. The emotional reaction associated with change is first of all arousal. This a priori neutral state may develop either into a positive feeling, as when novelty elicits curiosity, excitement and wonder, or into a negative one, as when lack of understanding triggers confusion, tension and fear. However, the longer such arousal is sustained, the more likely it is that interest will wear off and fatigue will set in. If a person does not manage to find an adequate response to the novel stimuli, he or she will experience loss of control and distress.

The instinctive reaction of an animal to stressful situations falls into three main categories: fight, flight or fright. The same inherited reactions seem to underlie our negative emotions. The "fight" reaction is associated with anger and aggression. "Flight" corresponds to fear and anxiety. "Fright" is the reaction of an animal that freezes or "plays dead" in the face of uncontrollable danger. The corresponding human emotions seem to be numbing apathy, despair and depression, which are all characterized by helplessness. Aggression is a short term reaction, which cannot be sustained very long. Anxiety and fear, however, can be constantly present. Fear is directed at a specific, frightening target, whereas anxiety is a generalized expectation that bad things may happen. This seems the most likely response to the continuing experience of unpredictable and uncontrollable change. Apathy and depression are more likely to be the outcome of a long process of failed attempts to control the stressful situation.

Effects on society

Not only individuals but society as a whole is likely to undergo these negative effects of too rapid change. The three basic attitudes are easily recognized in current patterns of social behavior. Aggression directed at no one in particular seems to underlie phenomena like vandalism and hooliganism. Individuals running amok and shooting scores of innocent bystanders may suffer from a more extreme version of this condition. Helplessness and despair can be recognized in the increasingly common "burn-out" syndrome, and in the ever so frequent depressions. Drug addiction may be another one of its symptoms.

But perhaps the most common neurosis in present society is anxiety. This is illustrated by the record use of anxiolytic drugs (e.g. benzodiazepines) that suppress anxiety symptoms such as sleeplessness, worrying, irritability, tension and digestive upsets. Anxiety also shows in the many irrational fears and scares, where far-away threats trigger disproportionate reactions. For example, the 1991 Gulf War should have worried only the countries neighbouring Iraq and Kuwait. Yet, the world, and the USA in particular, for several months recorded a spectacular drop in air traffic: people became afraid to travel anywhere. In Belgium, a continent away from the Gulf, people started hoarding basic food stuffs, like sugar, coffee and flour. It is clear that this underlying current of anxiety is often brought out and magnified by the media's bad news bias.

On the socio-economic level, anxiety is apparent in the growing feeling of insecurity. Fear of aggression tends to increase more quickly than the actual crime rates. Even when economic conditions are good, governments lament the absence of the "feel-good factor". Uncertainty makes people save money for later rather than invest it now. The "consumer confidence" needed to boost sales remains elusive. A main cause seems to be the continuing threat of job loss. Although households in the Western countries have a much higher average income than twenty years ago, the turmoil in the labor market makes future earnings very unpredictable. Anxiety also shows in the public's growing distrust of different kinds of authorities and institutions, whether they be government, police, health care, or church (Nye et al., 1997). This distrust is stirred up by the media's ever more extensive reporting of cases of corruption, abuse of power or professional misconduct. More reporting does not in general mean more cases, but more extensive information gathering, and perhaps more emphasis on sensational aspects because of competition between publishers.

Another basic cause for the growing feeling of uncertainty and insecurity is the erosion of existing systems of belief: religions, such as catholicism or hinduism, and ideologies, such as communism or the 18th century philosophy of Enlightenment. Such belief systems provide people with a world view (Apostel et al., 1994), offering them a body of principles on which they can rely and a sense of how their own existence fits into the larger whole. Thus, people get a positive vision of the future, and a system of ethics and values that can give meaning to their life. The precipitous developments in science, society and culture, however, have invalidated many of the assumptions underlying these traditional systems of faith. As a result they have lost most of their authority. Since no new systems of belief have as yet had the chance to develop, many people have lost their sense of direction and of confidence in the "natural order" of things. Sociological research indeed seems to indicate that the feelings of insecurity and distrust are strongest among the people who have the least faith in a religion or ideology (Elchardus, 1998). On the intellectual level, this fragmentation of traditional world views leads to the relativistic, "postmodern" outlook.

Information overload

The acceleration of change is accompanied by an increase in the information needed to keep up with all these developments. This too leads to psychological, physical and social problems. A world-wide survey (Reuters, 1996) found that two thirds of managers suffer from increased tension and one third from ill-health because of information overload. The psychologist David Lewis, who analysed the findings of this survey, proposed the term "Information Fatigue Syndrome" to describe the resulting symptoms. Other effects of too much information include anxiety, poor decision-making, difficulties in memorizing and remembering, and reduced attention span (Reuters, 1996; Shenk, 1997). These effects merely add to the stress caused by the need to constantly adapt to a changing situation.

Part of the problem is caused by the fact that technological advances have made the retrieval, production and distribution of information so much easier than in earlier periods. This has reduced the natural selection processes which would otherwise have kept all but the most important information from being published. The result is an explosion in often irrelevant, unclear and inaccurate data fragments, making it ever more difficult to see the forest through the trees. This overabundance of low quality information, which Shenk (1997) has called "data smog", is comparable in its emergence and effects to the pollution of rivers and seas caused by an excess of fertilizers, or to the health problems caused by a diet too rich in calories. The underlying mechanism may be called "overshooting": because progress has inertia, the movement in a given direction tends to continue even after the need has been satisfied. Whereas information used to be scarce, and having more of it was considered a good thing, it seems that we now have reached the point of saturation, and need to limit our use of it.


It seems that the biggest problem facing present-day society is not that there is too little progress, but rather too much of it. Our mind, physiology nor social structures seem fit to cope with such a rate of change and such an amount of new information. Unfortunately, change, complexity and information overload are abstract phenomena, which are difficult to grasp. Therefore, few people have as yet understood that they contribute to the anxiety they feel. When trying to explain their vague feelings of dissatisfaction, they will rather look for more easily recognizable causes, such as unemployment, pollution, crime, corruption or immigration. These phenomena, which have become much more visible because of the attention they get from the media, play the role of scapegoats: they are blamed for the lack of quality of life which people experience, while being only tangentially related to it. This reinforces an atmosphere of gloom and doom.

See also:
Information overload in the HotBot directory

Copyright© 1999 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Feb 19, 1999


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