Cognitive load is real

Disneyworld is stressful.

The occasional visitor has far less fun than you might expect. That’s because without habits, every decision requires attention. And attention is exhausting.

And it’s stressful because the choices made appear to be expensive. There’s a significant opportunity cost to doing this not that. You’re leaving tomorrow, what are you going to skip? What if it’s not worth the line? What are you missing?

It’s all fraught. We feel the failure of a bad choice in advance, long before we discover whether or not it was actually bad.

And it’s not just Disneyworld. It’s now the whole world.

Every minute on a website is a minute not spent doing something else. Every decision about what to write in social media is enervating. It’s not like the old days, with just three TV channels and a TV Guide to make that difficult decision even easier.

(The most popular magazine in America, for decades, was devoted to helping people figure out which one of three channels to watch).

Here’s my list, in order, of what drives behavior in the modern, privileged world:

  • Fear
  • Cognitive load (and the desire for habit and ease)
  • Greed (fueled by fear)
  • Curiosity
  • Generosity/connection

The five are in an eternal dance, with capitalist agents regularly using behavioral economics to push us to trade one for the other. We’re never satisfied, of course, which is why our culture isn’t stable. We regularly build systems to create habits that lower the cognitive load, but then, curiosity amplified by greed and fear kick in and the whole cycle starts again.

       


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