How We Deal with Information Overload

We’re in the dead of winter in Columbus, Ohio, and that means each morning as I make my way into work, it’s pitch black outside. As I drove to work recently, traffic was heavy and moving slowly so I had time to reflect. As I looked around I was struck by how much there is to see but which goes unnoticed when I’m driving closer to the speed limit.

During the drive I paid particular attention to the buildings and myriad of lights. The lights were easily distinguished from the car lights as were buildings from the trees and many other objects. Having worked for State Auto Insurance for more than 20 years, I’ve conservatively made the same drive about 4,000 times and yet, on this day, I noticed certain things for the first time.
In the midst of all this my mind wandered to persuasion and how the principles of influence work on people. Just like my brain doesn’t need to process certain input – many objects in the distance – when making the drive, neither do our minds process all the information that comes our way each day. Here’s an interesting quote that tells us just how bombarded we are:

“This year, the average consumer will see or hear 1 million marketing messages – that’s almost 3,000 per day. No human being can pay attention to 3,000 messages every day.” Fast Company – Permission Marketing by William C. Taylor

You might be thinking “Wow!” right about now, so I’ll wow you even more. That quote is now 14 years old! Imagine how much more marketing material comes your way though the proliferation of the Internet, Facebook, and smart phones. There’s no way you can process it all and that’s why Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology, asserts that 85% of what you do every day is processed by your subconscious.
Because we cannot process all the information that comes in through our senses, our brains develop shortcuts to help us manage. The principles of influence tap into this subconscious processing quite often. While there are certainly times when they lead to mistakes and other times where manipulative people use them to take advantage of us, more often than not they lead to good decisions and that’s why we come to rely on them so heavily. Below are
some examples of the principles at work in your decision making.
1. When your neighbor gets his house painted and you think it looks nice you’re probably very willing to use the same painters. Your friendship – liking – lets you rely on their recommendation much more than those of mere acquaintances. After all, friends want to help friends.
2. Someone invites you to a party and you enjoy yourself. Even though you’ve never asked them to a movie or dinner before, you do so next time because you appreciate their hospitality. We tend to “return the favor” because that’s how reciprocity works.
3. You’re not too interested in seeing a new movie but four people in your group of six want to see it, so you go along. Consensus, what everyone else is doing, impacted your decision. You may or may not like the movie but odds are you still enjoyed yourself because you were with your friends and that was better than going to a movie alone.
4. You’re watching your regular news station – could be FOX or CNN – and hear political commentary from a news anchor quoting a prominent politician from the party you support. You’re more likely to believe the report without investigating it further because of the authority of both the news anchor and the politician.
5. Your friend asked you to help him move next Saturday because you once said, “If you ever need anything just call me.” You really wanted to watch the ballgame but you help him instead because if you didn’t you’d feel like you were backing out of your word. That’s consistency at work in you.
6. You love IKEA and hear they’re having a huge sale but it ends on Sunday. You hop in the car and make the drive to the store even though you don’t really need any new furniture. Scarcity is prompting you to do something you wouldn’t have done otherwise.
In most of these examples, critical thinking is largely bypassed. When I give a talk or lead a training session I always have people who insist they don’t fall for any of this. I just smile because I know those are typically the people who respond to persuasion attempts the most and their strong reaction is a way to convince themselves they don’t, because it makes them feel as if they’ve lost some freedom of choice and have been duped. But they also miss the point that most of the time people are not trying to take advantage of them. There’s nothing wrong with going to the movie most people want to see or inviting a couple out to dinner because they first invited you to a party. As I noted earlier, the principles of influence generally guide us into good behavior and that’s why we continue to use them “on automatic pilot” so often.If you’re viewing this by email and want to listen to the audio version click here. If you want to leave a comment click here.

Brian, CMCT
Helping You
Learn to Hear “Yes”.

2 replies
  1. Bob Acton
    Bob Acton says:

    Thanks Brian. Good material.

    The notion of automatic thinking or click-whrrr, as Dr. Cialdini says, is a function of both being human and being busy, if not overloaded.

    My interest in focused in the area of leadership and these principles apply to leaders who want to influence their employees, customers, and shareholders. But your post made me wonder about the relative strength of each of these factors.

    I know that some of the factors occur more naturally in a situation, but what if two factors naturally occur, how does one parse out the relative importance of each? For example, if I have a leader who is a clear authority on a topic yet I don't like him…. do the two influence factors wash out?

    I think that this kind of situation will cause some conflict within a person and be more likely to stimulate a person to actually think about the situation, rather than simply responding automatically. Then, of course, the direction a person takes may vary depending on a variety of other factors.

    What are your thoughts?


  2. Brian Ahearn
    Brian Ahearn says:

    Great question and there are several ways to look at it.

    Will factors cancel each other out? Not necessarily. In Cialdini’s book Influence he cites a study on the impact of reciprocity and liking. In the study, a man gave subjects a coke then later asked if they would be willing to buy raffle tickets to help their kid. When they liked him they bought but even if they didn’t like him they still bought because of reciprocity. My guess would be, if a principle is very pertinent to a situation it might overwhelm others that don’t seem to be as natural. For example; consensus and authority both apply in times of uncertainty. However, each is stronger at certain times. Consensus is more impacting when it comes to matters of taste and preference whereas authority is the route to go when there’s empirical data that can be used.

    Something else to throw in the mix is personality type. I wrote about this extensively in the summer of 2010. Some principles of influence seem to be more effective with certain personality types. For example; the driver/pragmatic doesn’t seem to be as influenced by liking when compared to consistency or scarcity.

    I encourage you to look at the segment on the right hand side of my blog that has the personality links because when it comes to leading people its important to know them and their personality type. A leader can ask the same thing of two different people using different principles and be more effective than making the same standard request to all followers.

    Does this help?



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