We have a lot going on in our minds. Information constantly flows from the environment to our brains. We pick up cues of danger and opportunity through multiple senses. However, not every threat or opportunity is obvious. We must sort through the millions of fragments of information, sew them together to create an identifiable meaning. Our minds act as meaning making machines sorting, organizing, and creating. In the process of deciphering meaning, we discard majority of the data, labeling it irrelevant, and move forward. In psychology, we refer to this as selective information processing.
Selective information processing is an adaptive response to our brains limited capacity to process large chunks of data in the environment. Largely, we manage just fine with our unconscious picking and choosing which data is relevant and which data is not. The stranger hiding in the shadows is relevant, the type of tree casting the shadow is not.
Scientists theorize we maximize our brain’s capacity by weeding out unnecessary information. Once we arrive at the most salient theme, we absorb only the most relevant information and discard the rest. However, weeding out information is subject to bias, and trimming of information will likely verify preexisting narratives and mindsets.
Selective Information Processing is an information selective process, largely unconscious, that shapes, trims, and screens new information to conform with preexisting beliefs. Selective information processing is an adaptive response to dynamic and complex environment.
We organize the perceived data into a handy narrative for storage. Rosamund and Benjamin Zander explain, “all of life comes to us in narrative form; it’s a story we tell.” They then go into detail on the process of creating a narrative, “First, our sense brings us selective information about what is out there; second, the brain constructs its own simulation of the sensations; and only then, third, do we have our first conscious experience of our milieu. The world comes into our consciousness in the form of a map already drawn, a story already told, a hypothesis, a construction of our own making” (2002).
The Zanders aptly conclude, “we perceive only the sensations we are programmed to receive, and our awareness is further restricted by the fact that we recognize only those for which we have mental maps or categories” (2002). Our narratives, stuffed with selective information, have some notable flaws. Underlying functions eliminate relevant data, narrowing our mind, and biasing our views.
Cognitive Dissonance and Selective Information Processing
We strive to maintain a homeostatic balance. Preventing undue arousal is a common self-regulation strategy, keeping our system from undue discomforting arousal. One strategy for preventing arousal is eliminating conflicting information. Basically, once we create a narrative, information inconsistent with our narrative conflicts, violating our expectation, and demands attention to reconciliate our narrative with new incoming information.
According to Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory (1957), we are predisposed to avoid conflicting information. We may accomplish this in several ways. We may selectively choose to avoid environments that will challenge our beliefs (narratives), or unconsciously we dispose of unwanted information (selective information processing).
Factors Motivating Selective Information Processing
Selective information processing isn’t our default mode. Mostly, we prefer to correctly receive and process incoming information. However, our limited abilities can’t always enjoy this luxury. For us to adequately respond to our dynamic environments, we must take cognitive shortcuts, employing heuristics by relying on structures that we already accept. Several conditions lead to a significant selective processing of new information.
High Information Load
The more complex the information, the greater the need to trim away the fat. Processing vast amounts of information is time confusing, draining energy, and depleting available resources for other tasks. Researchers found that “when more than two pieces of information were available, the complexity of decision making was higher, motivating individuals to reduce the complexity of decision making by searching for decision consistent information” (Yoon, et al. 2012).
These findings match with the basic premise of cognitive load theory. When cognitive load is high, learning is inhibited.
Strong Commitment to a Position
When we are highly invested (ego investment), information that challenges our belief threatens our livelihood or sense of importance. We are unconsciously motivated to disregard such information as important, while highly attentive to information that supports our invested position.
We make wrong decisions. Repeatedly. Error is par for the course while living in a dynamic and complex world. Many choices can be undone. We can go back, make changes, and move forward in confidence. However, some decisions are irreversible. Our decision causes irreparable damage or drains irreplaceable resources. In these events, we are more likely to selectively process information to mitigate the shame of our costly error.
Negative Affective States
Our moods influence decisions, modify receptivity to information, and protectively avoids additional stress. During negative affective states our mood already is draining valuable resources. In our limited capacity, our minds and bodies go into protection overdrive, selectively processing only necessary information.
A Few Words on Selective Information Processing by Psychology Fanatic
We selective process information because we must for survival. However, not all selective processes are equal. Some selections trim away pertinent details. Our highly selective information then alienates us from reality, opening us up for future disappointments, and concealing better paths of action. While we will never be able to eliminate inappropriate trimming, we can work to challenge the most damaging conclusions and invite discomforting new information that may enlighten our stubborn minds.
Festinger, Leon (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press; Anniversary ed. Edition
Yoon, Y., Sarial-Abi, G., & Gürhan-Canli, Z. (2012). Effect of Regulatory Focus on Selective Information Processing. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(1), 93-110.
Zander, Rosamund Stone: Zander Benjamin (2002). The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life Kindle Edition. Penguin Books; Reprint edition