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Sat Jun 14, 2014, 12:44 PM

Life on the edge and Decision Fatigue

The thread about the single mom leaving the kids at alone night might be a good example of decision fatigue. The more decisions we have to make, and especially the greater the gravity of those decisions, the more they can cause us to begin to make bad choices out of simple cognitive exhaustion. It's difficult enough to resist a sales pitch among a cornucopia of products, but imagine that each decision you make between extra cheese or mayo could have life altering consequences.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and canít resist the dealerís offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you canít make decision after decision without paying a biological price.

I can't knowledgeably speak to the particulars of why some single mom couldn't seem to pay the gas bill or manage her work schedule. But I think that she, like millions of other Americans, is operating on the edge of a cognitive envelope. And before you reflexively leap to the group of your personal interest, I think that desperation and its negative consequences are happening across the social and political spectrum.

Once youíre mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there arenít a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If youíre shopping, youíre liable to look at only one dimension...

I think tunnel vision as a result of decision fatigue is an important factor at the macro level of culture and politics. Jonathan Haidt and George Lakoff have described the basic pillars of our moral and political motivations. When we are put under pressure I think we could, as a result of decision fatigue, develop tunnel vision around those basic values. We "revert to type" when we are under pressure or exhausted. So, while people on the political right may become inflexible about guns and in extreme circumstances shoot police officers and drape their bodies in a Gadsden flag, members of the political left might, in a fit of communal need for change and disregard for established authority, gang together and start burning down buildings to "rip it all down and start over". It's happened before.

We have become increasingly, and dangerously, politically polarized in this country. At the root of that polarization is profit. Tribalism through confirmation bias pays, and pays well. That's how the 1% pits members of the 99% against each other. They don't see us, they only see how much money they can make by telling us what we want to hear. And they're working both sides of the street.

The only solution I can see is to view our political opposites as human with legitimate values and try to make our values appeal to and support their values. That creates political allies because the worse the problem gets the more of a mandate we will require to rectify it. If we fail sooner or later there will come a serious economic or environmental shock that will push one side or both into open confrontation against the other, then it will be too late.

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