“Who do you think you are?”

Human beings go in for the fundamental attribution error.  Given the task of explaining someone’s actions, we tend to pin it on character, not circumstances.  Sometimes with deadly effects.

Of course, once we decide character is the issue, then shame and contempt are so tempting.  Who does she think she is?  But the truth is that, far from making a deliberate choice, maybe even she doesn’t understand either why things turned out as they did.

Cognitive psychology and neuroscience have discovered a lot of factors in the circumstances that can degrade a person’s ability to perform well or make good decisions.  One of the more  recent ones I’ve attributed to myself and then felt foolish doing so.  Having had recently the daunting task of furnishing some space without destroying my work time, I’d head off for a store with a list of needed pieces, and look at what they had on sale.  Then I’d find myself part way down the list and calling a halt.  “I’ve made enough decisions today, the rest won’t be very reliable.” 

O sure.  I thought I was just joking.  Making decisions uses up your ability to make good decisions?!?  Isn’t the mind immaterial and so…

O wait, I don’t think the mind is immaterial and so maybe it is really possible to use up whatever physical reserves one needs to make good decisions.  And recent research says that is exactly right.  Executive functioning, which is involved in decision making, self control and lots of other things, does draw on a limited reserve.  Spend too much time debating about whether to buy beets or carrots and you may be less capable of deciding well about the curtain rods at your next stop  – or where to send the just finished paper.

3 thoughts on ““Who do you think you are?”

  1. Psychologist Shelley Taylor, who specializes in social cognition, coined the term “cognitive miser” for the phenomenon of reserving our cognitive efforts for situations where accuracy matters. The idea is that since cognitive resources are limited (people get tired of thinking, after a while, and many people don’t like thinking in the first place), we make a lot of decisions on auto-pilot, using simple decision rules or even just attraction/avoidance reactions. Of course, some people enjoy thinking a lot more than others, so there’s a lot of individual variation.

    Taylor is also well-known for her “tend and befriend” hypothesis, which is that women often deal with highly stressful situations through social networking and care-taking, as contrasted with the “fight or flight” response, which had previously been assumed to apply to all humans but which is, in Taylor’s view, more of a prototypically male response.

  2. lga, thanks so much for the very interesting observations, and the reference to Taylor, whose website reveals what an impressive scholar she is: http://shelley.taylor.socialpsychology.org/

    I think Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, in her recent work on primates, advocates much the same conclusion about women’s fear responses. Perhaps Taylor influenced her on this.

    The recent research I mentioned could well be an extension of Taylor’s, though its claims are a bit different from the one’s you reported. The idea is that any decision making can degrade later decision making, even when its on a different topic and one doesn’t feel in the least tired. In my alluded to example, I had spent over an hour making choices at Whole Foods and then decided to drop in a curtain place on the way home. Of course, I don’t know what is the ‘real cause’ of what later seemed an obvious failure in common sense, but it might well have been that I had come to the end of my limited powers of discernment.

  3. One of the social psychologists in my department wrote an interesting paper once on the ways in which expending effort on empathy is like managing an economic resource. I’m sure she’ll be interested to hear about this related line of research – I’m glad you posted it.

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