The Velocity of Information

- Making Sense of a World in Chaos -

By David P. Perrodin, PhD

Anticipated publication in 2021


There are more questions than answers during a crisis, especially in the beginning, when alerts screech on our cell phones and torrents of conflicting, urgent messages gush from media outlets. What is the magnitude of the crisis? What is the cause of it, and what action should people take to protect themselves? The speed of these details is known as the velocity of information, and it overwhelms and distresses people who haven’t practiced directing their attention to trustworthy sources.

Our inability to juggle multiple facts and opinions during chaos drives us to frantically plunge into the datastream of TV, social media and contacting friends and family to retrieve evidence that supports our beliefs. We then cobble together, conflate and convincingly pronounce our findings to family, friends, and strangers on the Internet who have harvested information from the same headlines we skimmed five minutes ago.

We want confirmation bias. We want assurance that things will return to normal. By seeking external sources, we dismiss what should be corroborated by observing what is happening in front of our faces. How often do you say, “I observed?” Worse yet, people who are indirectly affected by the crisis through media exposure may personalize the event or see themselves as potential victims and inject skewed perceptions into already cloudy narratives.

Face validity is whether something appears to measure what it claims to measure. A thermometer reporting 80 degrees Fahrenheit during a snowstorm wouldn’t pass face validity. It’s broken, or your senses are deceiving you.

Member checks, or mustering a network of reliable confidants across the country (or globe) to tell you what they are observing and experiencing with their senses in their settings, can back up face validity. Using member checks helps to ensure that details come from an array of credible sources. What are your member checks observing?

Pasta and toilet paper are among the first items that panicked people wipe from store shelves. When paint and puzzles sell out, the nuanced observer recognizes a crossed threshold into what is known as “crowd-in” psychology, or when people feel the need to surround themselves with “comfort” items as they expect it will be weeks or months before their lives return to normal. How do you interact with people who are bracing for extended disruption of their lives? How does information change during a prolonged crisis such as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant fire or months into the COVID19 pandemic? How does the velocity of information change months into a crisis?

Studies of civilian morale during times of war indicate that after ninety days, people begin to lose hope leading to a cascade of adverse effects from depression to violence. Per WWII military field psychiatrist Dr. John Appel, this phenomenon is called finite voltage.

It’s well-documented that during wartime, governments’ public propaganda units put a fresh spin on the situation every three months. That might be naming something a “new phase” or promoting a unifying event such as the scrap metal drives of WWII. During the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns, city parades for medical staff and essential workers disrupted the “stay-at-home” languishing, serving to boost civilian morale.

Understanding the velocity of information teaches the value of using face validity and member checking to make decisions based upon trustworthy information during a crisis as well as during everyday life.