Information overload and cognitive under-comprehension are not the same

Two drivers of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty are often conflated—information overload and cognitive under-comprehension—and the conflation increases the sense of more complexity in policy and management.

–Think of information overload as the “right” information is actually there but hidden in the glut before us. Cognitive under-comprehension, in contrast, is our cognitive limitation to recognize anything like “the right information.”

Overload means we would be high-performing analysts and managers if only we were to tease out the right information from all the noise obscuring it; under-comprehension means we are held to such high-performing standards we couldn’t possibly know the right information, even if it were visible before our very eyes. “I could do my job if only I had the right information” is not “No one could do the job I’m tasked with, whatever the information available.”

–For example, making sense of the masses of Big Data requires algorithms no human beings on their own can comprehend. To that degree, what was information overload ceases to be that by triggering cognitive under-comprehension. Or consider regulators who suffer the double-whammy of information overload and cognitive under-comprehension: They have more information for use but not enough cognitive capacity and skill to extend their limits of cognition on using it.

–Two upshots deserve highlight here.

First, at or beyond the limits of cognition, not only is prediction and forecasting difficult, so too is identifying the counterfactual conditions, not least of which is what would happen if overload and under-comprehension were assuaged.

Second, arguments presented to us as policy relevant solely because of their diamond-sharp clarity rarely get beyond the joke stage. You only see a photo-clarity if misdirected from the murk of overload and under-comprehension.

Principal source

Sartori, G. (1989). Undercomprehension. Government and Opposition 24(4): 391–400.

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