Why it matters that 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 info glut before us. Cognitive under-comprehension, in contrast, is our evolved cognitive limitations to recognize anything like “the right information” for the matter at hand.

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 right there 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 info available.”

–Two upshots deserve quick emphasis.

First, at or beyond the limits of cognition, not only are 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 absent or otherwise ameliorated.

Second, arguments presented to us as policy relevant because of their diamond-sharp clarity rarely get beyond the joke or magic stage. They’re a form of misdirection from seeking out any overload and under-comprehension already present, were we only to look for them.

Either way, you don’t see the shadows because you are using a flashlight to find them.

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