When Does Too Much Information Get in the Way?

Researchers Test Subjects’ Recall of Health Recommendations 

By Tiffani Sherman
January 9, 2018

To alter specific behavior — as physicians would with patients — keep the talking points brief.

If you want someone to change a behavior, how much is too much information to share?

According to June 2017 study, it depends.

Researchers at the University of Illinois explored how well people can remember based on how much information they’re given. Psychology graduate student Jack McDonald participated in a study of 459 people, and in two experiments, researchers presented a list of health recommendations on a computer screen and asked subjects to remember them. One experiment presented up to 20 recommendations, the other up to 12.

“They were asked [to] recall as many recommendations as [they] can,” McDonald says. “We were not looking for exact replication of the wording, just general concepts.”

The results, published Clinical Psychological Science, showed the more recommendations presented, the more people remembered. However, the overall percentage of the recommendations remembered went down as the number of recommendations went up, with the threshold being about 14.

McDonald explains if someone was presented with four recommendations, he or she would remember three — about 75 percent. If the number of recommendations presented increased to 10, subjects might remember five — or just 50 percent.

“It seems people’s recall starts to peter out at about 14 recommendations or so,” McDonald says.

 With that number, they would only remember about seven — roughly half, he says.

McDonald says the results show if the goal is to change a general health behavior, recommending many interchangeable ways of doing it is a good idea. However, if the goal is to change a very specific behavior, less is more.

For example, if a physician wants a patient to lose weight, presenting many ways of accomplishing the goal would work best.

“[As a physician] I don’t necessarily care which recommendation they remember, just that they remember some of them,” McDonald says. “If you’re just trying to get someone to improve their health overall, give many recommendations.”

If the desired outcome is to have a patient quit smoking, doctors should only recommend ways to reach that goal, he says. When specific outcomes are the goal, “the more recommendations given, the less likely they are to remember a specific one,” McDonald says.

These particular experiments did not go outside the health care realm, McDonald says, but research from other sources shows similar results. It’s a direction this group of researchers might take in the future. These studies also did not test what happened when physicians verbally told patients about recommendations rather than writing them.

His research did show a correlation between the number of recommendations people remembered and their intentions, McDonald says.

“The more people remembered, the more recommendations they intended to enact,” he says, “they’ll pick which ones they want.”

The takeaway for physicians: If the goal is to target a general behavior, give many substitutable ways of doing it. If it is to alter something specific, target that with just a few recommendations.

“Not only do people remember it, but they intend to do those behaviors,” McDonald says.

Tiffani Sherman is freelance journalist based in Florida. 

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