Clarifying the Simple Assumption of the Information Load Paradigm

Robert S. Owen, Ohio State University
ABSTRACT - Debate over the "information overload" phenomenon has continued for almost two decades. This paper argues that further theoretical and managerial interest in the subject of consumer mental workload should be directed less toward issues of information quantity and more toward changes in processing quality as consumer mental workload is increased. Recent advances in our understanding of issues relevant to consumer mental workload are reviewed.
[ to cite ]:
Robert S. Owen (1992) ,"Clarifying the Simple Assumption of the Information Load Paradigm", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 770-776.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 770-776


Robert S. Owen, Ohio State University


Debate over the "information overload" phenomenon has continued for almost two decades. This paper argues that further theoretical and managerial interest in the subject of consumer mental workload should be directed less toward issues of information quantity and more toward changes in processing quality as consumer mental workload is increased. Recent advances in our understanding of issues relevant to consumer mental workload are reviewed.


To err is human. In September 1989, USAir Flight 5050 dropped into the East River at Laguardia Airport one minute after takeoff. The experienced pilot had attempted the takeoff with the rudder in full left trim. In March 1979, a reactor core at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant overheated. Supervisors manually overrode an automatically activated coolant pump after misinterpreting control panel indicators, resulting in catastrophe. A month later, a marketer reported the observation that consumers were choosing the wrong product when asked to compare too many features or too many product alternatives (Malhotra 1979, 1982).

Given that human and environmental safety is involved, incidents such as the first two are clearly deserving of a quest to understand what went wrong to cause the human error. As a sort of "information processing system", human ability is subject to the same constraints as any sort of machine system; the human system is certainly limited in its capacity to do work, and, like any machine, exhibits problems of reliability as that capacity limitation is approached. The study of human reliability is based substantially on an attempt to understand causes of error in an entire system which includes both a machine component and a human component (cf., Park 1987; Wickens 1984). Few would argue the importance of understanding the reliability and causes of error that occur in a system composed of pilots, flight controllers, and a myriad of lights, switches, and circuit boards.

Our understanding of human error is equally important, however, with regard to more typical everyday situations. Pressing the wrong elevator button after an intense business meeting or turning on the windshield wiper instead of the headlights while in heavy traffic are individually not serious enough incidents to seem worthy of study. Nevertheless, the occurrence of such everyday incidents does suggest that human processing mistakes are not a rarity, but are, rather, quite normal. The pioneering studies of "information overload" in the marketing discipline were concerned with the everyday mistakes that shoppers might make in the purchase of such mundane products as instant rice (Jacoby, Speller, and Berning 1975), prepared dinners (Jacoby et al.), laundry detergents (Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn 1974), or peanut butter (Scammon 1977). The mistaken purchase of the "wrong" brand of peanut butter is certainly not, as an isolated incident, a catastrophe of the magnitude of a downed airliner. On the other hand, if enough consumers in aggregate make the same mistake, the result can cost consumers millions of dollars and can result in large profits for the seller of an inferior product. In the case of a product like a house (Malhotra 1982) or even an apartment (Payne 1976a), a decisional mistake could lead to the purchase of an inferior choice alternative with which the buyer and his/her family will have to live for a substantial portion of their lives.

Debate over the existence of empirical proof of such a marketing phenomenon as "information overload" which could lead to purchase mistakes by consumers ensued soon after publication of the pioneering studies (Jacoby 1977, 1984; Jacoby, Speller, and Berning 1975; Malhotra 1982, 1984; Malhotra, Jain, and Lagakos 1982; Russo 1974; Scammon 1977; Summers 1974; Wilkie 1974). More recently, Meyer and Johnson (1989) have voiced additional concerns (see also Keller and Staelin 1987, 1989). As Jacoby (1984) notes, however, even a breakfast cereal package might have over 100 separate items of information, exclusive of additional graphic information, and a single store may carry as many as 90 different brands: that people can and would make mistakes under mentally taxing conditions would seem to be intuitively obvious, whether as pilots of jet aircraft or as everyday consumers.

Science does bear the obligation to provide empirical evidence even for that which appears to be intuitively obvious, and the pioneering studies appear to have provided reasonable evidence in support of intuition. There has been, however, a curious lack of work toward extending the pioneering notion of "information overload" with respect to the broader subject of consumer mental workload; this is only the preface of many more theoretically interesting and managerially rich chapters that still could and should be written on the subject. The notion that there exists some sort of "red line" in peoples' abilities, beyond which there is some kind of breakdown in the reliability of the processing machinery, is conceptually appealing. However, such a "red line", if one exists, is likely to be so smeared and fuzzy in real-world application that it could not alone be especially useful in application by a manager. Moreover, even if a specific "red line" point could be identified, what is a manager supposed to do with this interesting bit of knowledge?

This paper argues that theoretical and managerial interest should not be directed so much toward issues of information quantity, but more toward changes in processing quality as consumer mental workload is increased. The general purpose of a marketing communication is to inform and persuade, and we should therefore be interested in the kind of information retained and in the changes in attitudes toward a product when a communication is processed under conditions of low, moderate, and high levels of consumer mental workload. Additionally, this paper argues that we should focus more interest on the quality of particular (non-chance) product choice decisions under conditions of increasing mental workload, rather than the more simple issue of whether or not some "correct" choice, however defined, was made. Although many of the points made in this paper have previously been noted by others (e.g., Jacoby 1975, 1984; Malhotra 1984), this paper attempts to provide a review of recent advances in our understanding of issues relevant to consumer mental workload since the conduct of the pioneering marketing studies. It is hoped that this will help to clarify what it is that "information overload" may or may not mean in the broader context of mental workload and, further, that this will help to stimulate research beyond the simple issue of whether or not consumers can or will be "overloaded".


The notion of "information load" in marketing has primarily been concerned with product choice "errors" made by prospective consumers under conditions of high informational loads. Information "overload" is assumed to have occurred when the prospective buyer is unable to complete the buying task successfully, as might be evidenced, for example, when an objectively inferior product choice is made by a high proportion of consumers under high load conditions. The underlying cause of this phenomenon is assumed to be due to a "limited capacity" processing system, and that approaching this limit results in decisional errors (cf., Malhotra 1982).

These assumptions necessarily parallel those of the notion of "mental workload". The concept of mental workload, from engineering psychology, is concerned with errors made by human operators of machine systems under conditions of high mental loads. "Overload" is assumed to have occurred when the operator is unable to complete the task successfully (cf., Albanese 1977, cited in Willeges and Wierwille 1979). The underlying cause of this phenomenon is assumed to be due to a "limited capacity" processing system, and that approaching this limit results in operator error (e.g., Wickens and Kramer 1985; Willeges and Wierwille 1979). The notion of information overload, then, appears to be entirely consistent with the notion of mental workload; "information load" is apparently a limited subset of the broader concept of "mental workload". As such, these should, as concepts and as constructs, share certain similarities and limitations.


The "information overload" studies in marketing appear to have verified that prospective buyers can make dysfunctional choice decisions under conditions of heavy informational loads. Finding that participants in his study exhibited the effects of "overload" when confronted with 10 or more alternatives in the choice set or with information on 15 or more attributes, Malhotra (1982) suggested that future investigations should attempt to more clearly "determine the critical number of alternatives and attributes to information processing breakdown"; Miller's (1956) "magical number seven" is certainly an intriguing concept. There are, however, a number of reasons as to why it is unlikely that such a number can be identified in any marketing context and why this number alone would not be of much practical value.

The Multidimensionality of the Workload Construct

Although "overload" in the context of mental workload can be operationally defined with respect to increases in task performance error, there currently appears to be a consensus that there is yet no generally accepted definition of "mental workload" (cf., Chiles and Alluisi 1979; Wickens and Kramer 1985; Willeges and Wierwille 1979). The detection of "overload" is generally based on single-task performance measures, as when the "wrong" product is chosen in an information load task. There are also other measures of mental workload, including concurrent (aka dual-task, secondary, subsidiary) task performance measures, physiological measures, and self report measures (cf., Owen 1990a). This variety of measures alone would seem to indicate that mental workload is composed of many dimensions. Human performance researchers have recently made attempts to clarify various dimensions that may be involved in subjective perceptions of the workload construct, as in the conjoint approach of the Subjective Workload Assessment Technique (SWAT), which attempts to account for the workload dimensions of time load, mental effort load, and psychological stress load (e.g., Reid, Shingledecker, Nygren, and Eggemeier 1981; Tein 1989), or the NASA-TLX (Task Load Index) rating approach (Hart and Staveland 1988), which attempts to account for nine individual dimensions. The implication is that in various real-world marketing situations, "overload" is likely to occur at various points, depending on how various dimensions are affected at the time the marketing communication is received. The marketer would often not have control over all dimensions of workload, e.g., how much time the prospective buyer has to spend making product comparisons, which can affect the exact location of the overload "red line".

The Limited Resource Issue

There is substantial evidence of qualitatively different forms of processing mechanisms, and the mere observation of some quantitative threshold of "overload" is of limited value (cf., Owen 1991). From the perspective of attention theory, there is substantial evidence of multiple processing resources (e.g., Friedman and Polson 1981; Friedman, Polson, and Dafoe 1988; Isreal et al. 1980; Kantowitz and Night 1976; Navon and Gopher 1979; Sanders 1979; Wickins 1980, 1984; Wickens and Kessel 1980), each with its own "capacity" limitations, implying that "overload" may occur at different points, depending on what combinations of resources (e.g., mathematical, graphic, textual, oral) are engaged for any particular task.

Additionally, the "capacity" explanations of processing necessarily require the notion of automatism (Stelmach and Hughes 1983); there is evidence of an automatic mechanism of processing which does not consume from "capacity"-limited resources (e.g., Fisk and Schneider 1984; Schneider 1985; Schneider and Fisk 1983; Schneider, Dumais, and Shiffrin 1984; Shiffrin, Dumais, and Schneider 1981; Shiffrin and Schneider 1977), with the implications that there may be differences in the "overload" threshold for the processing of some kinds of information for some people and that new informational inputs will not be retained in memory. Related to the notion of automatism is evidence that processing can sometimes be a "skill" (e.g., Gopher in press; Hirst 1986; Hirst, Spelke, Reaves, Caharack, and Neisser 1980; Spelke, Hirst, and Neisser 1976), with similar implications. For example, "novice" shoppers of a particular product class may experience "overload" at a different point than "experienced" shoppers. The engagement of qualitatively different forms of processing resources will presumably result not only in different levels of an "overload" threshold, but may also result in qualitatively different outcomes with regard to learning information from a marketing communication.

Moderators of Processing Ability

A number of individual-specific traits may moderate "capacity" or other forms of processing interference that could lead to processing outcome errors (e.g., Gopher and Kahneman 1971). One capacity-based measure, concurrent task performance, has been associated with such individual traits as demographic (Stapleford 1973) and personality variables (Huddleston 1974; Huddleston and Wilson 1974). The effects of distraction also appear to be related to personality (Morgenstern, Hodgson, and Law 1974). Processing ability appears to be affected by the biological effects of aging (Kochhar 1979), apparently increasing from childhood through adulthood (Halford, Maybery, and Bain 1988), although further aging may negatively affect processing abilities (McDowd and Craik 1988). Additionally, a number of environmental factors could affect processing abilities. These might include food intake (Lisper and Eriksson 1980), noise (Finkelman and Glass 1970; Finkelman et al. 1977), sleep (Collins 1977), temperature and clothing (Vickroy, Shaw, and Fisher 1982), and perhaps even time of day (Malaviya and K. 1976). The overload "red line" could differ not only between individuals, but even within individuals, depending on environmental factors.

Heuristic and Peripheral Processing

From the perspective of persuasion and attitude change, there is also evidence of qualitatively different forms of information processing. There is evidence that people will sometimes engage in an objective or "systematic" mode of processing, but may at other times engage a more "heuristic" based mode of processing (e.g., Chaiken 1980; Chaiken, Liberman, and Eagly 1989). Related to this is evidence for the notion that people can sometimes engage a "central" mode of processing, where issue-relevant information is elaborated upon, and can at other times engage a "peripheral" mode of processing, where non-issue-relevant information may be elaborated upon or where elaboration may not even be engaged (e.g., Petty and Cacioppo 1981, 1986). Although the engagement of qualitatively different modes of processing may result in similar levels of initial attitude changes, the persistence (Haugtvedt and Strathman 1990) and resistance (Haugtvedt 1989) of attitudes (i.e., delayed effects) may be very different.

There are two implications associated with this. The engagement of a "peripheral" mode of processing may require the use of capacity-consuming effort, as when some sort of heuristic is used, or may not require the consumption of much capacity, where a person can be influenced by the peripheral features of a communication without deliberately using some sort of decision heuristic. This would roughly correspond to what Owen (1990b) calls "controlled/peripheral" and "automatic/peripheral" processing. Whether or not "capacity" gets used will affect whether or not a person made a decision that was affected by "overload", since overload is presumably a capacity-based construct. Exactly how one would define the overload "red line" under these conditions is not clear.

The other implication is that there is more at stake than just the decision outcome. Exactly how increases in mental workload affect attitude change processes is at least as important as any immediate decision outcome of the effects of mental workload. The pre-purchase process associated with products such as houses, automobiles, life insurance, or complex, expensive appliances is likely to result in a high level of motivation to process information as well as a high level of information load due to the difficulty in comparing features between such products. It is possible, perhaps likely, that many prospective purchasers of such products would not make an immediate decision when comparing products, but would take several days to "think" about the merits of the products. What should be of more interest in situations of high mental workload, then, are differences in the nature of attitude changes under these conditions, which could affect a future product choice decision.

Issues of Practical Application

As a sort of bench mark, knowledge that consumers can compare five or ten attributes or alternatives before exhibiting the effects of "overload" (cf., Malhotra 1982) is useful. The problem in a marketing context is that a number of constraints get in the way of making good use of this as a precisely defined point. Even if one could identify the magical number that defines the "red line" point in the number of product alternatives and number of attributes that people can consider before exhibiting the effects of "overload", it would have little managerial use in many situations. If the prospect wants to look at ten houses, the real estate agent cannot stop him/her. If the government mandates information on product packaging for the sake of consumers' right to know, then the seller must comply. If a life insurance agent is attempting to close a sale on a prospect, but the prospect is being deliberately "overloaded" with too much confusing information on too many policies by a competitor attempting to foil the sale, knowledge that the prospect is likely to have "overloaded" is, alone, of little value. However, an understanding of the process that leads to recall and to attitude change, attitude persistence, and attitude resistance under these conditions could be useful in the design of more effective marketing communication strategies.


The results of the marketing "overload" studies appear to support Miller's "magical number seven" as a rough benchmark. The debate resulting from these pioneering studies has also flushed out some crucial conceptual and methodological issues, providing a firm footing for future work on issues of the effects of mental workload in marketing situations. The preface to this interesting and practical subject has been written. Curiously, however, there has been very little work on the subject of consumer mental workload since the pioneering "overload" studies of the seventies.

The problem closing this issue at this point is that the identification of some quantitative threshold of "overload" has little practical use beyond providing a rough benchmark. This paper has discussed a number of qualitatively different processing mechanisms that can be engaged. The threshold might change, depending on how different kinds of informational inputs engage different combinations of processing resources, and depending on the processing skills of the person or population of message recipients. A number of other factors have also been discussed, such as individual differences, age, clothing and temperature, or time of day, which could affect an individual's ability or motivation to process a marketing communication. Any quantitative "red line" value that is identified as the outcome of a study could potentially be a mere artifact specific only to a particular experimental setting and may not be valid in other settings.

A more theoretically interesting and managerially useful issue regards the quality of processing under conditions of increased mental workload, regardless of the exact location of any overload "red line". The general purpose of a marketing communication is to inform and persuade, whether that communication be the labeling on a package, the appeals of a TV commercial, or an encounter with a salesperson. People do not always make some "correct" or "incorrect" decision choice when receiving a marketing communication; it is more likely that most marketing communications lead to the remembering of information and to changes in attitudes. Such learned information and attitudes are likely to affect some choice decision at a future time and are additionally, and importantly, likely to affect perceptions of product performance (i.e., satisfaction) after a purchase is made.

Even if one does consider the situation where a product choice decision is made at the point of the marketing communication (as when comparing package labeling in a store), the purchaser does not make a simple "correct" or "incorrect" choice. There may exist one single objectively best choice for that particular individual, but what actually happens when the person makes a choice that results in the purchase of a product that was not the "correct" choice? Although too much information could lead to human error, what is the quality of whatever choice was made? It is unlikely that the purchaser in this situation can make only a "correct" choice or a random incorrect choice.

If we assume that a consumer will attempt to make a reasonable (satisficing) choice, even if they lack the ability to adequately process information due to "overload", then we cannot assume that they would make a random incorrect choice. It is quite possible that people use simplifying heuristics based on, say, "peripheral" clues to product quality, such as the appearance of the packaging material or the furnishings in an attorney's office (cf., Jacoby 1984; Olson and Jacoby 1972; Shostack 1977). It is also possible that people can be influenced by more subtle "peripheral" cues in the situation that they do not deliberately consider, as in the automatism that may be associated with stereotyping (e.g., Devine 1989). If one assumes that people do attempt to make "reasonable" decisions, and are influenced by peripheral clues or cues, would it not then be possible to predict what kind of decisional error would be made? Would it not be possible to influence the outcome of potential errors with different strategies in packaging, in personal selling, or other forms of communication?

Two information processing models which attempt to integrate issues of "capacity" with issues of consumer memory and attitudes are those of Bettman (1979) and Owen (1990b). Perhaps such models hold some insights regarding the delayed effects of consumer mental workload on such factors as memory and attitude. Work related to consumer mental workload has addressed such issues as automatism (Palmer and Jonides 1988) and heuristics (Formisano, Olshavsky, and Tapp 1982; Lussier and Olshavsky 1979; Payne 1976a, 1976b), and the recent line of research addressed by Keller and Staelin (1987) has addressed the issue of information quality, rather than quantity.

Attitude theories and capacity-based attention theories recognize the influence of motivation and ability on human information processing. Certainly, information load affects and is affected by both motivation and ability (cf., Muller 1984), which are perhaps greater confounds in real-world consumer situations than they might be in the settings of astronauts or airline pilots. A severe limitation to the concept and construct of mental workload as it is studied in human factors is that these researchers are concerned with human error at the time of a task without regard to the delayed effects that workload may have. The effects of mental workload on memory, on changes in attitudes, and on the quality of future decisions appears to be, importantly, an issue unique to the discipline of marketing.


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