Panel Paper: Information Overload, Stress, and Emergency Management Thinking

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Jackson - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Shalini Misra, Matthew Rhodes and Patrick Roberts, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The potential for information overload is pervasive, but it is especially acute in emergency and crisis management. Emergency managers have periods of slack time in which they consume large amounts of ambiguous information under conditions of uncertainty. During a crisis, the volume of information increases rapidly, and the potential consequences for lives and property are more severe. This situation is ripe for stress and information overload, two related but distinct phenomena (Misra & Stokols, 2011).

Some people say that they can handle information overload and stress by multitasking, or by adapting to the new information environment. Others admit that overload and stress may have negative consequences, but their remedy is to give managers access to newer and faster technologies such as artificial intelligence and “smart things” in order to better manage the environment (Behmann and Wu 2015; Lee et. al. 2016). Other theories and empirical research suggest that digital overload may have consequences not just for stress, but also for how managers think and what they think about (Farhoomand and Drury 2002; Larson, 2004; Sternberg 2009).

The research reported in this paper investigates whether and how emergency managers experience information overload in an environment of digital technology and uncertainty and its relationship to rational thinking and information processing. We use a sequential mixed method research design, including a survey of 273 county-level emergency managers from 44 out of 50 states, and in-depth semi-structured interviews with 20 emergency managers to investigate these questions. Above and beyond the effects of age, education, experience, and time spent on emergency managerial work, higher level of perceived information overload from digital sources was significantly associated with higher level of perceived stress among the managers in our sample, providing support to prior research on the negative stress and health impacts of digital overload in other populations. Holding the same variables constant, higher levels of perceived stress were linked with lower levels of analytical or rational thinking. We found a significant moderating effect between stress and managers’ critical thinking disposition on the outcome variable of rational thinking. Managers who reported high disposition to critical thinking seem to be better equipped to buffer the negative effects of stress on the rational thinking, indicating the need to bolster managers’ critical thinking capacities.

While we cannot imply causation, our qualitative analysis highlights the problems of digital overload in managerial environments, the potential for stress, and a lowered capacity for analytical thinking among emergency managers. We show no relationship between stress and overload, on one hand, and prosocial motivation or public service motivation, on the other. Therefore, even the most public service-minded managers are subject to the same tendencies to stress and overload. We propose solutions that have worked in other contexts to bolster the capacity for critical and reflective thinking.