Human Information Behavior Theory


In the social sciences, however, the role of theory is rather more modest, for a variety of reasons. First, the phenomenon we study, human behaviour, can be directly affected by the means we use to study it. Consequently, there is always the possibility that even when we ask questions, a person may change his or her behaviour as a result of reconsidering (or perhaps considering for the first time) the implications of their behaviour. Thus, we may be reporting, for example, how people typically seek information when their behaviour has already changed. Secondly, people behave within a complex context: even in their ordinary lives they are affected by social, political, economic and technological change, and what was true for one point in time is not necessarily true for the future. In their working lives, they may be even more quickly affected and, in some cases, may need to change their behaviour as a consequence of decisions over which they have no control.

As a result of these difficulties, the social sciences generally look to theory for explanation, rather than prediction. We look to theory to find explanations of why people behave in certain ways, hoping that, as a result, we can find ways to help them perform more effectively or efficiently or find better ways to serve them. Because of the complexity of the social world and associated human behaviour and the complex nature of the human psyche, however, even the explanations are likely to be probabilistic rather than exact. Further, if predictions are made, they must be probabilistic because any measurements of the significance of factors relating to the future action of individuals will be, at best, crude estimates.
[HIBGeneralTheory, p.2]

However, by the very nature of any theory that seeks to explain human behaviour, a cognitive element must be present, since the recognition of a need for information by a person necessarily involves cognition.
[HIBGeneralTheory, p.2]

If we are to consider the models as representations of a theory, it seems reasonable to ask what the fundamental propositions of the theory may be. Lacking Wilson’s own analysis in these terms, what is offered here is tentative, but key underlying propositions appear to be:

  1. Human interaction with information results from a desire to satisfy various need states that arise in the course of human existence.
  2. Among those need states are problematic situations that arise in a person’s work, social relations, family life, as affected by a range of environmental factors from the socio-cultural to the physical.
  3. The person’s motivation to seek information to satisfy the need state is affected by a range of factors, the significance of which is affected by the person’s assessment of the importance of satisfying the need state.
  4. Having decided to seek information, the person’s ability to do so is affected by a range of intervening variables, which may be characteristics of the person themselves, or of their social relations, or of the means that exist to discover information.
  5. Information seeking behaviour may be episodic or iterative and may be influenced by the success or failure of the actions taken.
  6. The discovery of information may the result of deliberate search, or accidental discovery, or information monitoring.
  7. Information seeking is only one aspect of information behaviour: other activities (which may play a part in information discovery) include information exchange or sharing, information transfer to others whose needs are known, as well as the avoidance and rejection of information.
  8. Information behaviour may be individual, collective or collaborative.

[HIBGeneralTheory, p.10]

Even though “information behavior” is a popular phrase, the reflective discourse on information behavior has remained fragmentary, and the concept is largely used in an unreflective fashion.
[IBPractice, p.119]

In this light, a basic characteristic of the discourse on practice, in general, as well as “information practice,” in particular, is the emphasis placed on the role of contextual factors of information seeking, use, and sharing, as distinct from the individualist and often decontextualized approaches that are seen as characteristic of assumptions of information behavior.
[IBPractice, p.121]

Compared to the information behavior approach, information practice gives a central role to the social and cultural factors qualifying information seeking and devotes attention to the processes of information sharing. By contrast, the concept of information practice has remained somewhat ambiguous, and researchers have encountered difficulties in trying to draw clear boundaries with related concepts such as information work.
[IBPractice, p.125]

Secondly, the importance of research that observes the interaction between users and information retrieval systems is highly visible, and it is examined from two points of view: first, from the user perspective by means of observing how they construct search strategies and how they evaluate the information obtained, and secondly, from the system perspective, by means of analyzing the transaction log. This sphere of research, which in Wilson’s (1999) model would correspond to research on “information searching behavior,” is situated in the gray area along the border between information retrieval and information behavior. However, mapping the research in IB in a way that could inform other research examining the interaction between the user, the information, and the information systems requires navigating the blurry line that separates this field from others.
[IBResearchAnalysis, p.701]

Cognitive Theories

At the heart of the cognitive viewpoint rests the concept of knowledge structures. This concept has been borrowed from the cognitivie sciences. Knowledge structures are the sets of concept relationships that comprise each individual's model of the world. It is this model of the world that is seen to mediate an individual's information behavior. Each person will apply the knowledge structures that are required to perceive, interpret, modify, or transfer information.
[IBLitFrameworks, p.47]

Information behavior research that applies the cognitive viewpoint is therefore interested in studying how an individual will apply his or her model or view of the world to the processes of needing, seeking, giving, and using information.
[IBLitFrameworks, p.47]

Cognitive Learning

Previous research has postulated the relationship between searching and learning; however, limited prior empirical research exists to show how or even if learning explicitly manifests itself in the information searching process.
[CognitiveOnlineSearching, p.645]

In this research, we conducted a laboratory study to investigate whether learning theory provides a basis for investigating online searching. The implications being that if searching needs could be classified into an appropriate learning model based on searcher behavior, information systems could provide results that are not just relevant to the query but also to the underlying learning need.
[CognitiveOnlineSearching, p.655-656]

Problem Solving

The problem solving approach presents a specific view of information seeking as goal-directed behavior, with the resolution of the problem or the presentation of the solution as that goal. The problem solving approach conceptualizes the process of information seeking as the human behavior that supports the process of information construction, which is accomplished in stages. Recent information seeking studies support the notion that users seek information in a series of stages that link to the performance of a task or project, and that they adopt different strategies and exhibit different information behaviors at different stages of their information-seeking process (Kuhlthau, 1993).
[HIBDiversity, p.26]

Kuhlthau identified six stages in the information search process, incorporating the attributes of feelings, thoughts, and actions for the individual information searcher into each stage. The first stage of the information search process is initiation. where the individual is confronted with the task of recognizing his or her need for information. Then follows selection, where the task is to identify and to select the general topic to be investigated. The fourth stage is formulation. The task is to form a focus from the information that the searcher has thus far encountered in the searching process. The next stage is collection, when the searcher begins to gather information from the system being searched related to the focused topic. The information search process is completed by the stage of presentation. Here the findings or outcomes of the search are used. The importance of Kuhlthau's model to the cognitive approach to studying information behavior is its explication of the various attributes of the individual that correspond to each stage of the search process but are independent of context. The feelings of uncertainty, confusion, optimism, frustration, relief, and satisfaction cut across searching context.
[IBLitFrameworks, p.49-50]

Seeking & Search Process Model

However, the information seeking approach has been challenged by the everyday life information seeking approach that includes more consideration of human sense making behaviors and more nonacademic and less-formal information seeking behaviors.
[HIBDiversity, p.27]

Information Foraging

An alternative information foraging approach has emerged that is based on ideas from evolutionary psychology and anthropology.
[HIBDiversity, p.27]

Optimal foraging theory (OFT) is concerned with the “searching efficiency” of cognitive systems, both human and nonhuman, for food and mating opportunities in the environment; natural selection penalizes any cognitive system whose searching deviates from the optimal design in a given environment (Bell, 1991). Consequently, cognitive systems “evolve toward stable states that maximize gains of valuable information per unit cost” (Pirolli & Card, 1999, p. 643). The evolution toward such a stable state is constructed by the human forager through a process of constructing effective foraging patterns and continuously fine-tuning or adapting these patterns to the ever-changing environment.
[HIBDiversity, p.27-28]

The human information forager, similarly, uses what Pirolli and Card call “the proximal perception of information scent” to assess profitability of an information source in relation to other potential sources (Pirolli & Card, 1999). If the scent is strong, the information forager can make the correct choice; if there is no scent, the forager will have to perform a “random walk” through the environment. The forager’s perception of which direction offers the optimal information source or patch is changed by sniffing for scent activities; so the forager is constantly adapting decision making and direction—in the Pirolli and Card ACT-IF model, this is called adaptive control of thought in information foraging (ACT-IF).
[HIBDiversity, p.28]

Scent following is the “perception of the value, cost or access path of information sources obtained from proximal cues, such as bibliographic citations, WWW links, or icons representing the sources” (Pirolli & Card, 1999, p. 646).
[HIBDiversity, p.28]

In evolutionary psychology, information use is seen as the process whereby data gathered from the environment are used to transform the perspective of the hunter-gatherer thus allowing the hunter–gatherer to adapt his or her behavior. The purpose of this adaptation is to ensure the hunter–gatherer’s survival in the environment.
[HIBDiversity, p.29]

Social Theories

Everyday Life Information Seeking (ELIS)

Within the everyday life information seeking (ELIS)–sense-making approaches, the information user is conceptualized as constructing information based on the values and specific environment of the “small world” in which the user exists concurrently apart from and as a member of the larger society.
[HIBDiversity, p.27]

The everyday life information seeking small-world concept provides a deep, anthropological analysis of the situational aspect of information behavior in everyday life information seeking.
[HIBDiversity, p.27]

Multifaceted Theories


When a gap in sense under an old theory develops in the individual’s world, the individual tries to make new sense, thus creating a new theory. The individual makes new sense by seeking information from the environment, which the individual interprets into sense to build a bridge over the gap.
[HIBDiversity, p.27]

Information Poverty

To maintain an impression of coping well within their life worlds, individuals engage in self-protective behaviors, which form the boundaries of their world of poverty. In this sense, the theory [Chatman's theory of information poverty] explains how individuals define and use their life experiences to survive in a world of great distrusts. It reveals situations in which people know that important, relevant, and potentially useful information exists but high social and other costs prompt them to ignore it.
[IBLitFrameworks, p.55]

Within this framework, individuals strive to represent a positive social type that shares the collective worldview and respects the social norms upheld by other members of the social world. One's efforts at creating and maintaining this social type will affect whether and how one engages in information seeking. If a situation requires information behavior that is inconsistent with the established worldview or contradicts the social type on has established then the individual is likely either to avoid or to disengage in information seeking or to move into another social world where he or she can engage in the behavior more freely.
[IBLitFrameworks, p.56-57]

Partial Equilibrium

With respect to the implications, the equilibrium framework of HIB may encourage and enable future research to probe the nature and features of HIB from three different perspectives: first, stages: group the classical constructs and concepts (e.g. ASK, uncertainty, gaps) into different stages (i.e. start state, process, goal state) and see how they interact with each other both within and across different stages; second, forces: explore both short-term and long-term information behaviors and information-related abilities as ISF and IDF, and figure out how different forces influence each other and how they jointly motivate an individual to pursue the equilibrium states between information obtained and mental model, and between outside and internal worlds; and third, short term and long term: study the connections between short-term information seeking and search (for problem solving and task completion) and long-term ability improvement and KB modification (for obtaining the maximized gains from valuable, useful information) at both theoretical and empirical levels.
[HIBModel, p.684]

Co-ordinating & Multitasking

Theoretically and practically, HICB1) can be conceptualized as a multitasking and coordinating process. Humans commonly face multiple and complex situations in organizing and seeking information that involves interplay of information and non-information tasks. Multitasking and co-ordinating information behavior is a relatively new and crucial area of HIB research.
[HIBMultitasking, p.150]

The development of HIB necessitates a theoretical and empirical explication of the important nature and role of HIB’s, including HICB. In HCIB, humans co-ordinate a number of elements, including their cognitive state, level of domain knowledge, and their understanding of their information problem, into a coherent series of activities that may include seeking, searching, interactive browsing, retrieving, and constructing information. A key process for HCIB is to sustain these activities toward completion of some information goal or object.

Information seekers perform interdependent activities to achieve goals or solve problems. These activities may also require or create resources of various types. In this view, information seekers co-ordinate information tasks arising from dependences that constrain how tasks can be performed. These dependences may be inherent in the structure of the problem (e.g., components of a system may interact with each other, constraining the kinds of changes that can be made to a single component) or they may result from decomposition of the goal into activities or the assignment of activities to other actors and resources.
[HIBMultitasking, p.150]


The types of information needed to develop and maintain interwoven situational awareness includes information about the dynamic work situation, the work process and specialized domain knowledge. A dense social network with n-way communication of this information among team members and links to outside groups appears to support the development and maintenance of an interwoven situational awareness. Another important issue with respect to human information behavior in complex group work contexts is the necessity of information exchange during continuous and sustained operations. The `interspersed' approach to shift change-overs appears to be the most effective strategy. Contested collaboration appears to occur because team members have different specialized language and terminology, different organizational and individual goals and priorities, differences in perceptions of quality and success and different past experiences and work practices. These differences increase a member's value to the team effort while at the same time, making it more difficult to collaborate. In the worst case scenario, team members maintain an outward stance of cooperation but strive to advance their own interests and knowledge claims.
[IBGroupWork, p.476]

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Human Information Co-ordinating Behavior