Cognitive Load and Effective Donation

by Neotenic3 min read10th Mar 201320 comments


Personal Blog

(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.

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