Cognitive Load and Effective Donation

(pre­vi­ous ti­tle: Very low cog­ni­tive load)

Trust­ing choices made by the same brain that turns my hot 9th grade teacher into a knife-bear­ing pos­sum at the last sec­ond ev­ery damn night.

Sean Thomason

We can’t trust brains when taken as a whole. Why should we trust their sub­ar­eas?

Cog­ni­tive load is the load re­lated to the ex­ec­u­tive con­trol of work­ing mem­ory. Depend­ing on what you are do­ing, the more par­allel/​ex­tra­ne­ous cog­ni­tive load you have, the worse you’ll do it. (The pro­cess may be the same as what the liter­a­ture calls “Ego De­ple­tion” or “sys­tem 2 de­ple­tion”, the jury is still up on that)

If you go here and en­ter 0 as lower limit and 1.000.000 as up­per limit, and try to keep the num­ber in mind un­til you are done read­ing post and com­ments, you’ll get a bit of load while you read this post.

Now you may pro­cess num­bers ver­bally, vi­su­ally, or both. More gen­er­ally, for any­thing you keep in mind, you are likely al­lo­cat­ing it in a part of the brain that is pri­mar­ily con­cerned with a sen­sory modal­ity, so it will have some “flavour”,”shape”, “lo­ca­tion”, “sound”, or “pro­pri­o­cep­tual lo­ca­tion”. It is harder to con­sciously mem­o­rize things us­ing odours, since those have short­cuts within the brain.

Let us in turn ex­am­ine two do­mains in which un­der­stand­ing cog­ni­tive load can help you win: Mo­ral Dilem­mas and Per­sonal Policy

Mo­ral Games/​Dilemmas

In Dic­ta­tor game (you’re given $20 and you can give any amount to a stranger and keep the rest) the effect of load is neg­ligible.

In the tested ver­sions of the Trol­ley prob­lems (kill/​in­di­rectly kill/​let die one to save five) peo­ple are likely to be­come less util­i­tar­ian when un­der non-vi­sual load. It is as­sumed that higher func­tions of the brain (in VMPF cor­tex) - which in­te­grate higher moral judge­ment with emo­tional taste but­tons—fails to in­te­grate, mak­ing the “fast think­ing”, emo­tional mode be the only one re­act­ing.

Vi­sual in­for­ma­tion about the prob­lem brings into salience the gory as­pect of kil­ling some­one, and other lower level fea­tures that in­cline non-util­i­tar­ian de­ci­sions. So when vi­sual load re­quires you to mem­o­rize some­thing else, like a bird draw­ing, you be­come more util­i­tar­ian since you fail to vi­su­al­ize the one per­son be­ing kil­led (which we do more than the five) in as much gory de­tail. (Greene et al,2011)

(Bed­nar et al.2012) show that when play­ing two games si­mul­ta­neously, the strat­egy of one spills over to the other one. Crit­i­cally, heuris­tics that are use­ful for both games were used, in­creas­ing the like­li­hood that those heuris­tics will be sub­op­ti­mal in each case.

In al­tru­is­tic dona­tion sce­nar­ios, with dona­tions to suffer­ing peo­ple at stake, (Small et al. 2007) more load in­creased scope in­sen­si­tivity, so less load made the dona­tion more pro­por­tional to how many peo­ple are suffer­ing. Con­trary to load, prim­ing in­creases the ca­pac­ity of an area/​mod­ule, by us­ing it and not keep­ing the in­for­ma­tion stored, leav­ing free us­able space. (Dick­ert et al.2010) shows that prim­ing for em­pa­thy in­creases dona­tion amount (but not de­ci­sion to donate), whereas prim­ing calcu­la­tion de­creases it.

Taken to­gether, these stud­ies in­di­cate that to make peo­ple donate more it is most effec­tive to, af­ter be­ing primed for think­ing about how they will feel about them­selves, and for em­pathic feel­ings, make them feel em­path­i­cally and non-vi­su­ally some­one from their own race. After all that you make them keep a num­ber and a draw­ing in mind, and this is the op­ti­mal time to donate.

Per­sonal Policy

If given a choice be­tween a high carb food, and a low carb one, peo­ple un­der­go­ing diets are sub­stan­tially more likely to choose the high carb one if they are keep­ing some in­for­ma­tion in mind.

For­get­ful peo­ple, and those with ADHD know that, for them, out of sight means out of mind. Through luck, in­tel­li­gence, blind er­ror or psy­cholog­i­cal help, they learn to put things, liter­ally, in front of them, to avoid ‘los­ing them’ in their minds cor­ner some­where. They have a lower stor­age size for ex­ec­u­tive mem­ory tasks.

Pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gists ad­vise us to make our daily tasks, spe­cially the ones we are always re­luc­tant to start, in very visi­ble places. Alter­na­tively, we can make the com­mit­ment to start them smaller, but this only works if we ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber to do them.

Mar­ket­ing ap­pro­pri­ates cog­ni­tive load in a ter­rible way. They know if we are over­whelmed with in­for­ma­tion, we are more likely to agree. They’ll in­form us more than what we need, and we aren’t left with enough brain to de­cide well. One more rea­son to keep ad­ver­tise­ment out of sight and out of mind.

Effec­tive use of Cog­ni­tive Load

Once you un­der­stand how it works, it is sim­ple to use cog­ni­tive load as a tool:

1)Even if your ex­ec­u­tive con­trol of ac­tivi­ties is fine, ex­ter­nal­ize as much as you can, by us­ing a cal­en­dar and alarms to tell you ev­ery­thing you need to do.
2)Do ap­par­ently mean things to donors like the above sug­ges­tion.
3)When in need of moral em­pa­thy, type 1, fast, emo­tional but­tons sys­tem, keep nu­mer­i­cal and ver­bal things (like phone num­bers) in mind while de­cid­ing.
4)When in need of moral util­i­tar­i­anism, high­jack the taste but­tons, au­to­matic, type 1 sys­tem, by giv­ing your­self an emo­tional ex­pe­rience more pro­por­tional to the num­bers - for in­stance, when rea­son­ing about the trol­ley prob­lem, think about each of the five, or pinch your­self with a nee­dle five times prior to de­cid­ing.
5)When in need of more cog­ni­tive calcu­lat­ing ca­pac­ity, be­sides hav­ing freed your­self from ex­ec­u­tive tasks, use nat­u­ral sen­sory modal­ities to keep stuff in mind, not only the clas­sic cas­tle mnemon­ics (spa­cial lo­ca­tion), but put the chunks of in­for­ma­tion in differ­ent parts of your body (pro­pri­o­cep­tion), as­so­ci­ate them with tex­tures (Feyn­man 1985), shapes, and ac­tions.
If prac­tis­ing this looks some­times un­nec­es­sary, or im­moral, we can re­mem­ber Max Teg­mark’s gloomy as­sess­ment of Science’s per­va­sive­ness (or lack thereof) at the Edge 2011 ques­tion. When dis­cussing the dishon­esty and mar­ket­ing of op­po­nents and defen­ders of facts/​Science, he says:
Yet we sci­en­tists are of­ten painfully naive, de­lud­ing our­selves that just be­cause we think we have the moral high ground, we can some­how defeat this cor­po­rate-fun­da­men­tal­ist coal­i­tion by us­ing ob­so­lete un­scien­tific strate­gies. Based of what sci­en­tific ar­gu­ment will it make a hoot of a differ­ence if we grum­ble “we won’t stoop that low” and “peo­ple need to change” in fac­ulty lunch rooms and re­cite statis­tics to jour­nal­ists?

We sci­en­tists have ba­si­cally been say­ing “tanks are un­eth­i­cal, so let’s fight tanks with swords”.

To teach peo­ple what a sci­en­tific con­cept is and how a sci­en­tific lifestyle will im­prove their lives, we need to go about it sci­en­tifi­cally:

We need new sci­ence ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions which use all the same sci­en­tific mar­ket­ing and fundrais­ing tools as the anti-sci­en­tific coal­i­tion.
We’ll need to use many of the tools that make sci­en­tists cringe, from ads and lob­by­ing to fo­cus groups that iden­tify the most effec­tive sound bites.
We won’t need to stoop all the way down to in­tel­lec­tual dishon­esty, how­ever. Be­cause in this bat­tle, we have the most pow­er­ful weapon of all on our side: the facts.

We’d bet­ter start push­ing emo­tional but­tons and twist­ing the men­tal knobs of peo­ple if we want to get some­thing done. Start­ing with our own.