Jul 24, 2014

Cognitive Fuel is a Myth, or an Alternative Explanation for Corporate Greed

There is a classic psychology experiment that theorizes that humans have 'cognitive' resources and that these resources can be consumed: either by doing mental work or self-restraint.  This blog post by Serious Pony sums up the research that has been done in this area very well, but here's my attempt to rehash the idea behind cognitive fuel.

The basic experiment goes as follows: two people come in for a psychology problem.  One person is asked to memorize 2 digits.  The other person is asked to memorize 7 digits.  At the end of the 'task', each subject is offered a treat: either a bowl of fruit, or a piece of chocolate cake.  More often than not, the test subject that memorized 2 digits will reach for the fruit.  The test subject that memorized 7 digits will reach for the chocolate cake.  With this as evidence, the researchers concluded that mental energy is limited, and that doing a more grueling cognitive task eats away at the amount of 'mental energy' you have available to resist temptation.

This conclusion is flawed.  There is another explanation.

My objections to this conclusion are rooted in a long running experiment I've been doing on myself.  It involves giving up sugar.  I've gone off and on of no-sugar diets for almost 3 years now.  I always go back to it, and I always go back to it for the same reason.**  That reason, I believe, is the same reason that the students tend to pick the sweet treat when they've done more cognitive work.[1]

In the United States[2] (and perhaps other countries), we are taught what is work and we are taught what is reward.  As students in school, we learn that memorization is work.  We also learn that math is hard.  We are taught, culturally by our parents and the implicit attitudes of most of our teachers, that numbers are not easy.  Given that these are true, then it follows that memorization of numbers is non-trivial work.

Further, as children, we are taught that sweets are a reward.  They are rewards for birthdays, for holidays, for finishing your supper.  For being good at the store.  For cleaning up your room.  We, in the United States, train our children to expect and to look for a reward after they have completed work.  It is a cultural norm that any amount of work or hardship will be rewarded.  That reward is usually (but not universally) something sweet.

Now to bring this back to the experiment. For the first subject, the task of memorizing two numbers is trivial.  This task is so simplistic that the task doesn't qualify as work.  Memorizing seven digits, on the other hand, is hard work.  In the experiment then, one subject did hard work, the other did not do much work (if any).

After completing the task, the subjects were then promptly presented with a choice of reward.  Perhaps it wasn't phrased that way, but that is how the situation is most likely to be interpreted.  The subjects were asked to complete a task, and then walk up to a box (which they cannot see into until they have reached it), and are asked to choose one of the snacks.  I can practically hear the subconscious of the 7 digit memorizers yelling "I've done work, here is my reward".  It's a simple pattern match for your brain: work, reward.  The experiment made me do work, here is my reward.

Seeing the experiment from the lens of work equals reward, the interpretation of the results changes.  Cognitive load is not a limited resource that gets spent.  Rather, our rationalization of what work deserves what reward is piqued.  The study participants, most of them, recognized 7 digits as work and the cake as their reward.  Even if they were on a diet, it's easy for them to rationalize that they had earned the chocolate cake - brains take energy, you know!

Under this re-interpretation, if you want people to buy your product, make them feel like they've earned it.  Or at least, deserve to be rewarded.  Give them some trivial task that we culturally have defined to be difficult or at least 'work', and they'll choose the best reward presented.

If we want people to lose weight, we need to either decouple sweets as a reward mechanism or stop telling ourselves that work deserves reward.  We need to declassify what work is, and what it means to be rewarded.

As a further corollary: Why is corporate greed in America so bad?  Because we all deserve it.

[1] Or a task that, at least culturally, is labeled as being a larger cognitive work load.
[2] Relevant because both of the researchers live and work in the United States*, and that all of the students (or at least a high percentage of them) are US undergrads.

* Baba Shiv [was] an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242-1000, and Alexander Fedorikhin [was] an assistant professor at Washington State University, Richland, WA 99352.

** I go back to sweets because without sweets, I never get 'rewarded'.  Not eating sugar is hard, not just because it is addictive, but also because it feels like punishment for doing something wrong.

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