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Managing cognitive overload during COVID-19

4 minute read

There are implications for research to be applicable over a longer time horizon and not be skewed by this current crisis.

“Is it week 5 or 6 of lockdown? I am not sure…”

“There are so many competing thoughts around when all of this will pass and what the ‘new normal’ will be….I do not know what to believe….”

Sounds familiar? We might be looking at a phenomenon called cognitive overload – a situation where someone is given so much information and needs to consider so many different tasks that they are unable to process all of it.

Some might argue that we were already living on the edge of cognitive overload with social media and switching between multiple screens. However, the experience of COVID-19 has undeniably tipped us all over into cognitive overload.

But what does all of this mean for research and its long-term applicability and validity? If there is pressure on the consumer’s brain to constantly process new and overwhelming information from news and social media, and to constantly reconsider their own decisions, how does that influence our engagement with them?

For instance, if someone is being overly conservative in a discussion, is that their true financial behaviour, or did they just miss the last can of baked beans at the supermarket?

On the surface, it might look like a consumer is ‘distracted’, but in reality, their brain is tired.

To counter this, we need to access a different part of their brain – one that does not rely on rational processing, but on instinctive actions, strongly-held beliefs and human and cultural truths that would hold true even when the crisis is over.

Now consider this…

…a couple working from home finish their workday, pour themselves a drink and decide to play a game of Monopoly before dinner. She knows that her partner is always competitive at board games, but hopes that he will be more relaxed today – she had a tough day and wants to just unwind… What do you think he does?

You are right. He is still competitive that evening. And has the same gleeful expression on his face when he wins. The world around him might have changed in an unrecognisable way, but somehow, he still plays Monopoly the same way.

That is because his choices in a game represent something deeper than his mentally overloaded rational brain – they represent his deeply coded mental models, heuristics and decision-making frameworks. Like this, approaches to resource management, collaboration, gain vs. loss are deeply imprinted and are likely to remain the same, crisis or not.

Therefore, during this time what if we could use digital games and simulations to uncover consumer preferences and decision making? Would it be better to simulate real-life contexts, rather than ask probing questions grounded in reality?

As we go through COVID-19, could it help us get to answers with longer-term validity? Post COVID-19, could it still continue to meaningfully bypass the rationally overloaded brain?

Operating from the same principles, what if we took research participants away from their current context and placed them in a different context? It is likely that they would reveal more about themselves in finishing a story, drawing their relationship with a particular brand, instinctively responding to photographs, etc. This approach of using projective techniques has proven to be effective across disciplines, from psychoanalysis to market research.

Finally, we believe this crisis is placing a greater responsibility on researchers to understand human beings more holistically. Behavioural science principles talk about innate human biases like loss aversion that suggest that the pain from loss is felt a lot more acutely than the pleasure from a gain of the same value, or hyperbolic discounting which is a tendency for people to choose smaller, immediate rewards over larger and delayed rewards.

While these theories are relevant universally, a deeper understanding of these is more relevant now than ever before.

Instead of enquiring, assessing or interrogating, let us engage our consumers. We’ll probably go a lot further with them, and at this stressful time, they might even enjoy our company.