What is Information Processing Theory? Stages, Models & Limitations | Research.com (2023)

What is Information Processing Theory? Stages, Models & Limitations | Research.com (1) by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Technology has advanced over the decades, taking us to today’s information age. Now, modern operations and solutions have become driven by information and communication technologies. In fact, data creation, usage, distribution, and manipulation have become critical in various industries. These are considered transformative elements that influence outcomes, strategies, performance, and returns of institutions.

With this, it is important to be aware of how information is processed and consumed. The information processing theory describes how individuals record, store, and retrieve information in their brains. This affects the motivation and the behavior of a person (Hann et al., 2007). Consequently, the actions and behavior of individuals influence society as a whole.

This article defines information processing theory, its elements and origins, based on current literature. It also discusses the information processing approach in context of intellectual development, existing models that expound on the theory, its limitations, and some of its organizational benefits. After reading the article, the reader should have an idea of how people process information, its implications, and why applying its approaches comes as a worthwhile psychology career option.

Information Processing Theory Table of Contents

  1. What is Information Processing Theory?
  2. Models of Information Processing Theory
  3. Limitations of Information Processing Theory
  4. Organizational Benefits of Information Processing Theory

What is Information Processing Theory?

Information processing theory is an approach to cognitive development studies that aims to explain how information is encoded into memory. It is based on the idea that humans do not merely respond to stimuli from the environment. Instead, humans process the information they receive. While experts believe that the brain’s mechanisms and functions are relatively simple, the magnitude and scope of neural networks and their behaviors are quite powerful as a whole (Wang, Liu, & Wang, 2003).

These include how the brain processes information. Information processing theory not only explains how information is captured, but how it is stored and retrieved as well (Çeliköz, Erişen, & Şahin, 2019). The process begins with receiving input, also called stimulus, from the environment using various senses. The input is then described and stored in the memory, which is retrieved when needed. The mind or the brain is likened to a computer that is capable of analyzing information from the environment. Even at a young age, a person can amass and store significant volumes of information, as seen in the information processing theory child development.

Consequently, information processing affects a person’s behavior (Hann, Hui, Lee, & Png, 2007). In the expectancy theory of motivation, an individual processes information about behavior-outcome relationships. Then, they can form expectations based on the information and make decisions, thus underscoring what is information processing in psychology and its significance.

Origins of Information Processing Theory

George Armitage Miller was the first to put forth the idea of the theory of information processing. He was one of the original founders of cognition studies in psychology and considered a progenitor of the information processing model in psychology. His studies are based on Edward C. Tolman’s sign and latent learning theories, which propose that learning is an internal and complex process which involves mental processes (Çeliköz, Erişen, & Şahin, 2019).

Miller discovered the capacity of the working memory, which can generally hold up to seven plus or minus two items. Additionally, he coined the term “chunking” when describing the functionalities of short-term memory.

Aside from Miller, John William Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin are also associated with the information processing approach in cognitive psychology. The Cognitive Information Processing Theory refers to the proposed multi-stage theory of memory, which is one of the leading models of information processing theory (Sala, 2007).

Two other psychologists, Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch made significant contributions to the information processing theory in psychology through their own studies. They presented a more in-depth information processing model of memory with various stages, such as visuospatial sketch pad, phonological loop, and central executive (Baddeley, 2006).

Elements of Information Processing Theory

While major models of information processing theory vary, they are mostly composed of three main elements (Çeliköz, Erişen, & Şahin, 2019):

  1. Information stores – The different places in the mind where information is stored, such as sensory memory, short-term memory, long-term memory, semantic memory, episodic memory, and more.
  2. Cognitive processes – The various processes that transfer memory among different memory stores. Some of the processes include perception, coding, recording, chunking, and retrieval.
  3. Executive cognition – The awareness of the individual of the way information is processed within him or her. It also pertains to knowing their strengths and weaknesses. This is very similar to metacognition.

Models of Information Processing Theory

There are various attempts to develop models of information processing. The two most popular are the multi-store model by Atkinson and Shiffrin and the working memory model by Baddeley and Hitch.

Atkinson and Shiffrin Model

John William Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin proposed the multi-store model in 1968 to illustrate their view of human memory (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1977). The model shows the three subsections of human memory and how they work together.

So, what are the 3 stages of information processing? They are as follows:

  1. Sensory Memory – It holds the information that the mind perceives through various senses such as visual, olfactory, or auditory information. These sense organs often receive a barrage of stimuli all the time. However, most are ignored and forgotten by the mind to prevent getting overwhelmed. When sensory information engages and gets the attention of the mind, it is transferred to short-term memory.
  2. Short-Term Memory (Working Memory) – Information in short-term memory only lasts around 30 seconds. Cognitive abilities affect how individuals process information in working memory. Additionally, attention and focus on the most important information also play an important role in encoding it into long-term memory. Furthermore, repetition significantly helps the ability to remember details for a long time.
  3. Long-Term Memory – It is thought that long-term memory has an unlimited amount of space as it can store memories from a long time ago to be retrieved at a later time. Various methods are used to store information in the long-term memory such as repetition, connecting information, relating information to meaningful experience or other information, and breaking up the information into smaller chunks.

What is Information Processing Theory? Stages, Models & Limitations | Research.com (2)

Baddeley and Hitch Model of Working Memory

Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch proposed the model of working memory back in 1974. They provided an in-depth understanding of the mind and how it processes information. Four more elements are added to further illustrate the information processing theory (Goldstein & Mackewn, 2005), namely:

  1. Central executive – It is considered the control center of the mind where information processes are regulated between various memory stores. It controls and implements the cognitive processes that encode and retrieve information. Additionally, the central executive receives information from the visuospatial sketchpad, episodic buffer, and phonological loop. The frontal lobe of the brain is thought to house the central executive, as this is where all active decisions are processed.
  2. Phonological loop – It works closely with the central executive and holds auditory information. Furthermore, it is composed of two sub-components:
    • Phonological store – It holds auditory information for a short period.
    • Articulatory rehearsal process – It stores the information for longer periods of time through rehearsal (Baddeley & Hitch, 2019).
  3. Visuospatial sketch pad – It is considered another part of the central executive that holds spatial and visual information. It helps the mind imagine objects and maneuver through the environment.
  4. Episodic buffer – Baddeley later added the fourth element of the model, which also holds information. It increases the capability of the mind to store information. He believed that the episodic buffer transfers information between short-term memory, perception, and long-term memory. As it is still relatively new, research is still conducted as to its specific mechanisms (Goldstein & Mackewn, 2005).

Limitations of Information Processing Theory

Just like any theory, the information processing theory has its limitations. While the presented models adequately describe how information is processed, several issues arise as well:

Analogy Between Computer and Human is Limited

The information processing theory likens the mind to a computer due to the following aspects:

  1. Combining or connecting new information with stored information reveals new information that can provide solutions to various problems.
  2. A computer has a central processing unit which has limited computing power. Similarly, the central executive in humans has a limited capacity that affects the human attentional system.

One of the obvious limitations of this analogy is the capacity of the human brain to store information that is on the order of 108432 bits. That means the capacity of human memory is excessively better than a computer’s (Wang, Liu, & Wang, 2003). This quantity gap between a computer and a human brain means the latter can accommodate processes that the former simply cannot, forming the idea behind the information processing theory of intelligence. Also, the analogy also does not consider the motivational and emotional factors that affect a human’s cognition.

The Models Assume Serial Processing

Existing models of information processing theory assume serial processing, which means one process needs to be completed before the next process begins. This is very similar to how a computer functions, hence the analogy.

However, the mind is capable of parallel processing, which means simultaneous processing of various inputs with varying quality (Laberge & Samuels, 1974). Such ability of the human brain depends on the processes needed to accomplish a task and/or the amount of practice and the ability of the individual.

For example, a touch typist is able to read passages while typing them on the keyboard. On the other hand, a novice typist would focus on a letter or a word at a time.

Organizational Benefits of Information Processing Theory

Information processing theory can be extended beyond individuals. Just like a human mind, an organization is also an entity that processes information as part of its critical functionalities. As such, the concepts in the information processing theory can be applied to organizations.

There are four primary stages of processing information in organizations which usually, but not always, occur in order (Kmetz, 2020):

  1. Acquisition or retrieval – Individuals in the organization receive or seek information. The source of information can come from within the organization, such as knowledge base, experts, or even performance review comments from employees. The information can also originate from outside the organization through other entities, third-party experts, and more.
  2. Storage – It may initially occur in the individuals’ memories. Storing may also occur in other media such as computers, databases, or servers. Storing is a crucial part of the entire information processing workflow so that other members of the organization can access the information when needed. It is also important for learning as the organization can learn from its past experiences through the stored information.
  3. Transformation – It happens when individuals modify or transform information that is received or in storage. This may include analysis, expansion, or compression that will help them in decision-making. Transforming can include extracting or deriving result from new information.
  4. Transmission – The information from one of the first three stages are distributed to others. It may include reporting or presenting to relevant stakeholders.

By understanding how information is processed in a task, organizations can reduce uncertainty. The greater the uncertainty, the more information needs to be processed by the decision-makers in order to fully execute the task and understand its implications (Galbraith, 1974). On the other hand, when enough information related to the task is processed, it becomes well understood even before its execution. As such, many of its steps can be preplanned, which improves efficiency, resource management, and change management. Furthermore, relevant strategies can be formulated to take advantage of opportunities and minimize potential issues.

Such examples are knowledge-intensive activities in global organizations. An in-depth understanding of information processing allows organizations to expand such activities to members across different locations. They can then examine various stages of information processing and understand the importance and effects of various factors, such as customers’ needs, task commoditization, and collaborative technologies (Chen & Lin, 2016). Then, the organization can design the most effective dispersion of activities that will maximize human and other resources.

Information Processing Theory and Its Current Areas of Research

Information processing theory is currently being used in various industries, areas of study, and technology careers. Beyond the individual, the concepts, models, and ideas in information processing are being applied to various entities such as:

  • Business – Information processing theory has been used to describe organizational behavior (an example is discussed in the previous section). For example, various models are used to understand how businesses utilize market information, how they decide which information is relevant or important, and how it affects their long-term strategies (Rogers, Miller, & Judge, 1999).
  • Family unit – The theory is used to understand family systems that include attending, sensing, and encoding of stimuli within the family as a whole or the individuals. A family unit then develops mutual and individual schemes that affect how information is processed and attended to. The schemes can be examined to describe family dynamics, culture, and relationships (Ariel, 1987).
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) – Information processing theory was developed in cognitive psychology and the desire of scientists and experts to understand how the human mind works. AI studies aim to understand human cognition and replicate the processes in machines such as natural language processing, memory encoding, information retrieval, learning, and more (Langley, 2016).

As the interest in how the human mind works expands, so does the application of information processing theory. Furthermore, it improves the understanding of how various entities from individuals to entire organizations deal with information. Consequently, new models, ideas, and concepts are developed under various contexts, with information processing theory serving as their core. Learners who wish to know more about these can take on-ground or online degrees in psychology.


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