Research shows that if you face information overload, psychological distancing can be helpful.
Information overload is a fact of modern life, making many common decisions (such as choosing a cellphone plan) unbearably confusing. Although choice offers options to consumers, too many choices or too many features per choice can cause people to delay decisions or make less-than-optimal choices.
But recent research into how individuals process information offers some promising suggestions for dealing with information overload.
The key may involve “psychological distancing” — removing oneself from the morass of details surrounding a decision and considering the choices on a more abstract level.
As authors Jun Fukukura, Melissa J. Ferguson and Kentaro Fujita explain in their 2013 article “Psychological Distance Can Improve Decision Making Under Information Overload via Gist Memory,” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, such distancing (which can be either temporal or physical) can help people to filter out the less-vital details and enable them to focus on the gist of the matter.
The authors tested several aspects of how psychological distance influences decision making. In one study, they asked some participants, who were students from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to write about a car they would buy next year, and others to write about a car they would buy tomorrow. (A control group was not given a writing task.) Participants were then given information to read about 48 individual features (such as mileage, handling, year and trunk capacity) of four different cars — twelve features per car — and had only seven seconds to absorb each piece of information before the next piece appeared on a computer screen. Participants were then asked to choose the car they thought was best.
Those who had written about the future before receiving information chose the best car (the one whose features were considered most important to people in an earlier pilot) significantly more often than participants who had written about a near-term purchase (69% vs. 40%) or those in the control group (39%).
In another test of psychological distancing, the researchers randomly assigned one group of individuals to write for three minutes about the previous day and another group to write for three minutes about a day about a year earlier. Then they presented participants with sets of information about the features of the four different cars; a computer screen displayed information about the features of one car at a time, and the participants learned about the cars at their own pace. When the participants were done reading, they were asked to select the car they would buy and to characterize the memory strategy they had used.
Those who had written about the past selected the best car at a much higher rate than those who had written about recent occurrences (59% versus 34%) or members of the control group (29%), who had not done a writing task.
What’s more, those participants who had written about the past reported relying on “gist memory” — in other words, memory about the gist of a matter — significantly more often than the others. The researchers found that mind-sets involving psychological distance enabled participants to organize related product features better.
To be sure, psychological distancing isn’t appropriate for every situation. In instances where people are expected to recall and piece together specific details (for example, jury trials or investigations), it may be harmful. But in many circumstances involving information overload, it can result in better decisions.
This research is one of six scholarly articles into decision making highlighted in the Winter 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. Read more in “Why You Decide the Way You Do,” by Bruce Posner.