Safety Minute: Fix Information Overload: Include a Visual Summary of Important Documents | AIChE

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Safety Minute: Fix Information Overload: Include a Visual Summary of Important Documents

Safety Minute



As more and more mental effort is devoted to managing the information, less mental capacity is available for understanding it.

Research shows that decision quality falls by 50% after saturation.

This Safety Minute was prepared by Larkin Communication ( in partnership with CEP.

Fix Information Overload

Recommendation: Layer Your Documents by Increasing Amount of Complexity

Do not delete long text-based documents (you need them). Instead, create layers of complexity so your employees can move to the level needed for their task.

Example: Line Break Procedure Showing Three Layers of Complexity


Top Layer: Life Saving Rules

  • mostly pictures
  • few details

Middle Layer: Line Break

  • combination of pictures and text
  • visual summary of critical content

Bottom Layer: Line Break Procedure

  • all text
  • encyclopedic approach to the procedure

Let your employees choose the level of complexity needed for their task.

The middle, picture-based layer (shown below) is the layer that most companies are missing, but it is the easiest for employees to recall.

A picture-based document has fewer words and is easier to recall than a text-based document.
  Text-Based Picture-Based
Number of words 2,739 words 202 words
Pages 8 pages 1 page
Time to read 15–20 min 1 min
Complexity level College-level 6th-grade-level
Percent of U.S. adults who can read at that level of complexity 17% 65%
Recall of document content Baseline 800% better


Decision Quality Declines by 50% After Information Saturation

Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple Univ., recruited volunteers to try their hand at combinatorial auctions for airport landing slots. These are complex auctions in which bidders must consider a dizzying number of factors. The challenge is to buy the combination of slots you want at the lowest price.

  • As the auction took place, Dimoka measured the volunteers’ brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
  • As the information load increased, so did activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), a brain region that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions.
  • But, as the researchers gave the bidders more and more information, activity in the dorsolateral PFC suddenly fell off, as if a circuit breaker had popped.
  • The bidders reached information overload. At this point, they started making mistakes and poor decisions.

In another example, two groups of MBA students managed a fake portfolio of stocks.

  • One group was intentionally overloaded with information.
  • The other group saw only stock-price changes.
  • Stocks chosen by the overloaded group performed 50% poorer.

Source: Begley, S., “The Science of Making Decisions,” Newsweek, (Feb. 27, 2011).

Why Does Information Overload Lower Performance?

  • Employees have difficulty finding the most relevant information
  • Too much emphasis on the most recent information as opposed to the most important information
  • Filtering information takes time from learning the information
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed result in less motivation to find the best solution

Source: Hemp, P., “Death by Information Overload,” Harvard Business Review, (Sept. 2009).

Inverted U-Curve

The plot on the first page of this Safety Minute describes how information overload leads to worse decisions. The red line shows an inverted U-curve often found in information overload research. It refers to a decline in decision-making quality as incoming information surpasses the saturation point.

The saturation point is the point at which the amount of information coming in is greater than the information processing ability of the receiver.

Source: Roetzel, P., “Information Overload in the Information Age: A Review of the Literature from Business Administration, Business Psychology, and Related Disciplines with a Bibliometric Approach and Framework Development,” Business Research, pp. 1–44, (2018).



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