When someone says something reprehensible, we need time to process what was said and how it affected us. Over the last few decades and with tremendous help from the 24-hour news cycle, news processing times have suffered a dramatic dropped as the frequency of breaking news has increased tremendously.
Our senses are under a constant barrage of news updates. Messages are flying in so fast that there is no possible way to process them all. Cognitive overload has become en a strategy of mass distraction.
So what exactly is cognitive overload? We can define cognitive overload through the effect it has on us. We have so much information to process in so little time to do it that we just give up and stop processing altogether. The predictable consequence is that our level of care could not drop any lower than its current state.
Cognitive overload, when used to distract us, comes in the form of an unpleasant cascade of crude comments. I say something horrid and outrageous. A whole bunch of people cries bloody murder. I double down by saying something even uglier than the first time. As you continue to vent your outrage, I add another disgusting fictional statement. I keep adding more and more until your turn into a permanently outraged citizen.
I have just created a circle of outrage from which you cannot escape. To keep the loop going, I continue launching outrageous statements after outrageous statements. I have just made you a prisoner. You have a whole series of backlogged outrage to express against me. I am going to make sure that I continue adding fuel to that fire.
You are distracted. Your friends are distracted. Their friends are distracted as well. Soon, my behavior has effectively divided the audience into passionate supporters and zealous detractors. What does this mean for me? It means that I can do whatever I want and get away with it because the two parts of the audience are now completely focused on each other. You may be thinking to yourself, clearly, this is bad. I agree.
But using cognitive overload as a distraction strategy is not new. It’s always been part the arsenal of generally accepted tools in public discourse. It can both be used in a defensive and an offensive manner. The only difference today is that it’s been used more openly and much more negatively.
The only reasonable way to deal this type of public discourse strategy is to keep the focus on the issues that matter. The people who employ this strategy are trying to create conditions that make a conversation around your important issues impossible. They are looking to provoke a debate but only on the items that are important to them. As a participant, you can facilitate the distraction by being continuously outraged or hold their feet to the fire by mercilessly focusing on the important issues. Easier said than done. You are right once again.
We are all emotional creatures, and it’s very difficult to see anything else when our emotions are high.
It’s easy to dismiss the people using cognitive overload as a distraction strategy. However, if you decide to react to every instance of outrageous pronouncements, you will do so at the peril of the issues that are important to you.