Human information behavior: Integrating diverse approaches and information use

Abstract: Spink and Cole (2006) survey the main research on human information behaviors – delineating three interdisciplinary approaches – problem solving, ELIS (everyday life information seeking), and foraging – proposing that a fourth – information use with modular cognitive architecture – may also be gleaned from the literature, and then attempting to construct an integrated approach from the comparison of those four approaches.

The first, traditional approach for LIS is problem solving: a staged approach which starts with the identification of a problem or gap – an information need, and then proceeds with various strategies toward its solution. This approach has recently emphasized the importance of contextual factors such as the cognitive, physiological, and emotional state of the searcher – uncertainty, in particular has been highlighted.

The second approach – everyday life information seeking (ELIS) or sense-making – emphasizes that we live in a discontinuous environment which requires that we constantly theorize in order to understand the dissonance between the larger society and our small world context and, thus, to master our own lives.

Foraging, the third approach, takes concepts from evolutionary ecology and views information as a resource and we as opportunists who seek to maximize our gains through efficient search efforts. This approach notes the importance of the deciding how much time to devote to different strategies, shifting strategies/sources based on internal and external cues, such as ‘information scent’, and the need to constantly adapt your direction and decision-making. One successful forager employed both diet enrichment and construction activities, as well as scent-following strategies.

The final approach combines a theory of information use with modular cognitive architecture. Use is defined as incorporating information into knowledge – a knowledge that helps us survive. The evolution of human cognition points to abstraction as the key mental survival skill, enabling us to more efficiently exploit our environment, cope better with extremes, and be more flexible in our social behavior.

The authors attempt an integrated approach by emphasizing recent trends in contextualization which have redefined:

  • information as a subjective (and potentially transformative) process,
  • information need as contextually mediated and holding the status of a primary need, and
  • information behavior as adaptable and survival-motivated.

They attempt to construct an integrated model which acknowledges the larger evolutionary, societal and local contextual environments (prior conditions) that lead to un-deliberate local information foraging, as well as deliberate problem-solving and then to a knowledge product (which will be challenged by new already-existing information).


Spink and Cole’s (2006) evolutionary approach to information behavior as being learned increased my optimistic view of information literacy. I am now more confident that information seeking strategies can be taught. Also, the emphasis on information need as a primary, survival-oriented need is helpful in reminding technology designers that our job is to keep those needs and contexts in mind when designing interfaces. The first questions about a technology and interface should not be “Isn’t this cool?” but “Will this help?” and “How can I make this easier?”

Spink, Amanda, & Cole, Charles (2006). Human information behavior: Integrating diverse approaches and information use. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 57(1), 25-35. Retrieved September 13, 2008, from Science Direct.