Information-Seeking, Information Literacy and Cognitive Psychology
Shenton, Andrew K., School Librarian
No doubt many readers frequently find themselves encountering material from other fields that they recognise is of value to their own work in LIS. Only a few months ago, I myself realised how an appreciation of the phenomenon of 'blended memory', which is associated with the discipline of psychology, can help us to understand why some quests for information end in failure. An article in which I explore this territory has now appeared in an education journal. (1) Psychology would seem, in fact, to be an especially rich source of concepts that may be pertinent to our comprehension of information behaviour. Indeed, in a seminal report, Tom Wilson and Christina Walsh single out psychology, along with sociology, as a field that can make a strong contribution in this context. (2)
Any reader who listened to the episode of All in the Mind broadcast on BBC Radio Four on 4 December 2012 may well have been struck by the relevance of the ideas of cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky to the way in which information-seekers deal with inaccurate material. (3) It should be stressed from the outset that the real focus of the discussion on All in the Mind was that of why the brain retains incorrect material, not the evaluation of the content of sources accessed during information-seeking activity, and the programme was thus concerned with processes which are subsequent to those typically of interest to scholars of information behaviour. Nevertheless, several of the issues raised can be recast in terms that are appropriate to school librarians intent on developing their pupils' information literacy.
Lewandowsky's Relevant Principles
According to Lewandowsky, the 'default assumption' when receiving information is to accept that the material presented is true. This mindset, he maintains, is partly the result of upbringing--generally, children are raised up by parents who, most of the time, tell them the truth. There is much evidence in the literature associated with LIS to corroborate Lewandowsky's claim in relation to our attitudes to information. Even when children are working with paper sources, David Wray and Maureen Lewis note that they often encounter material that is misleading, incorrect or biased, yet they will still 'naturally tend to believe that everything they read in books written by adults who know a great deal more than them about a particular topic is bound to be true. (4) The lack of trustworthiness of much of the information that can be found on the Web is well known but the pattern which typically emerges in research reports is that when working in this environment, too, youngsters do not adopt a questioning attitude to the material they encounter. Summarising the results of various projects for a major study, Peter Williams and Ian Rowlands highlight the lack of attention that young people give to the authority of a source when using the Internet for information. (5)
2. Cognitive effort
In some ways, the second principle follows logically from the first. Since the recipient of information is inclined to believe the material presented to them, they must make a special effort to tag the information as false if it becomes obvious that it is inaccurate. It is especially likely, Lewandowsky suggests, that the individual will accept incorrect information when they are distracted or paying insufficient attention. If we acknowledge that the process of recognising that particular information is inaccurate imposes a significant burden on the individual, we may view the person's inclination to ignore the extra demand that is made as consistent with the 'principle of least effort', which is frequently used in LIS literature to explain much information behaviour. Reflecting on the findings of a range of studies, Eliza Dresang suggests that young people have often been found to display 'a propensity to take the easiest path possible'. …