OftA: Cognitive Economics and the Functional Theory of Stress

The topic of cognitive economics is something I haven’t explicitly revisited in writing, though I think about it quite a bit, and have discussed aspects of it in recent talks. The idea of the attention economy is quite popular in the era of social media, as we watch various strategies for attracting, keeping, and directing attention change our society in real time. However, attention is only one of the resources that (economic) agents require to make decisions, and it is often focused on purely as a limit on passive consumption of information, rather than a limit on active processing of it.


I just read this little piece on the Guardian on the increasing prevalence of anxiety in modern life, coupled with the ideological barriers to considering the social causes of such stress. This individualisation of mental health issues that are better seen as symptoms of social structures is something that Mark Fisher discusses well in his excellent Capitalist Realism (which I’ve written about elsewhere). CR focuses more on affective problems (developing the illuminating concept of hedonic depression among other analyses), whereas Ivor Southwood’s brilliant Non-Stop Inertia focuses more on the peculiar anxiety inherent in the modern form of precarious work. This certainly has an affective dimension, but it comes closer to cognitive issues of alertness and task allocation. I’ve been thinking about all this a lot recently in relation to stress, in terms of some ideas I’ve been developing under the heading of cognitive economics. Though there’s no doubt a lot of empirical work that can be done on the neurological basis of anxiety and the way this relates into social/environmental factors (and no doubt has been done already), I think that this can be separated out from a more abstract notion of stress that can be specified in purely functional terms. I won’t claim that this is a polished theory, or that the methodological relationship between the more empirical topic of anxiety and the more abstract (even transcendental) topic of stress has been adequately circumscribed, but the point of this tumblr blog is to present ideas in progress that aren’t quite fleshed out enough for elsewhere. Baring that in mind, I’ll briefly introduce the idea of cognitive economics and the theory of stress I’ve been developing on the basis of it.

The foundation of what I call cognitive economics is the recognition of a distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive resources, understood as the difference between those resources needed to decide upon and guide action (e.g., time, attention, skill, etc.), and those resources needed to perform action (e.g., money, commodities, tools, etc.). This idea needs developing more precisely, but once one recognises this distinction one begins to see that cognitive resources have their own economy that interacts with the economy of non-cognitive resources in interesting ways, and that this undermines certain conventional economic ideas as well as shedding light on other economic phenomena. I’ll provide some quick examples to illustrate this (taken from an abstract I wrote recently), before examining how this relates to stress more specifically. So, here are some implications of the distinction:-

a) More information about available options is only good so long as there are enough cognitive resources to process the information, beyond which point it becomes noise rather than signal. This can be developed into a concept of ‘life-noise’ that can be used to reinterpret both the social role of marketing and the increasing penetration of work into life. For example, branding is not just a matter of conveying honorific value on products, but is also a way of filtering informational noise by reducing the cognitive load of purchasing decisions.

b) The increasing emphasis on consumer choice has actually created a system in which most people’s purchasing decisions are radically sub-optimal, in exchange for a minority of consumers gaining the ability to optimise their decisions. This can be developed into an analysis of demand side inefficiencies as distinct from more familiar supply side inefficiencies. For example, it is equally possible for companies to make a profit by cultivating and exploiting inefficiencies in consumer decision making as it is to increase efficiency in production or service provision (e.g., the UK’s truly insane train ticket pricing system, or supermarkets’ subtle methods of encouraging sub-optimal purchasing decisions).

c) We compensate for limited cognitive resources by solving practical problems through distributed social cognition, producing shared solutions to common practical problems.This can be developed into an analysis of how we generate ‘default solutions’ that can save cognitive resources but equally create niches for exploitative economic behaviour. For example, homeownership and university education, which, although they were at one point efficient default solutions, have since become parasitised by whole industries who have identified the economic inertia underlying them as a prime source of economic rents.

d) High frequency trading (and similar pathologies of finance) are the apex (or nadir) of a more or less natural trend to convert superior information processing power into superior wealth as directly as possible (i.e., without proceeding through production).This can be developed into an alternative account of the ‘brain drain’ through which finance absorbs talented graduates from other fields.

This brief sketch shows the extent to which either the natural limitation of cognitive resources (both individually and collectively), the cultivation of artificial scarcity of cognitive resources, or the creation of mechanisms to actively exhaust cognitive resources provide a large array of possibilities for specifically cognitive forms of oppression that are invisible if one takes the ability of individuals to optimise their decisions to be trivial (which many economists and thinkers in political economy do, for methodological or more directly ideological reasons). What I want to do now is to provide an abstract definition of stress that shows how it can result from the interconnected structures of cognitive oppression that dominate the contemporary economic landscape. This arises from a further implication of the initial distinction:-

e) The Paradox of Cognitive Resources: Because cognitive resources are required to allocate all resources, they are required to re-allocate themselves, such that the possibility of increasing allocative efficiency  presupposes a cognitive surplus of some kind.

The important thing to understand about action (which I think was a real insight of Heidegger) is that most of what we do is not the result of practical reasoning, but merely the exercise of practical heuristics for coping with our environment that we have either habitually developed or learned more or less implicitly from the behavioural niches that structure the patterns of action and interaction constitutive of the culture we find ourselves in. The important point we can take from Kant is that this sort of skilled coping is still conscious, precisely insofar as it has the possibility of becoming properly self-conscious, which is to say, insofar as we can expend varying amounts of attention in actively adjusting our actions, up and to including engaging in practical inference about what we should do. This in turn combines with Heidegger’s further insight that there’s a many layered structure to our practical activity, insofar as we can decompose any action into its component actions, and situate any action as a component of a larger project up to and including what Sartre would call our ‘fundamental project’ or our overall view on how we want to live our lives.

What this means is that one can actively reconsider how one is acting at any level of this hierarchy of action, from the way one’s hands are placed on the steering wheel when driving, to the route one is taking, to the purpose of one’s journey, to the way this fits into one’s overarching life-goals. However, it equally suggests that the amount of attention (or other cognitive resources) that must be expended to reconsider ones actions/projects increases the further up this hierarchy one goes. This means that, all else being equal, reallocating the cognitive resources necessary to manage one’s actions at any given level of practice requires a cognitive surplus greater than the level below. It’s this idea that underwrites the functional theory of stress I want to propose. As opposed to anxiety, which is a particular sort of mental state combining affective and cognitive elements, stress is best characterised as a a lack of the cognitive surplus necessary to reconsider one’s actions. Stress is thus a form of cognitive resource exhaustion that can be categorised in terms of thresholds of cognitive surplus, i.e., levels of stress are differentiated in terms of the levels of task-reconsideration that are ruled out by this exhaustion: from the high-level ability to stand back and redesign one’s life plan, to the low-level ability to stand back and modify the way one approaches small day to day tasks.

This provides a fairly intuitive way of explaining one of the more anecdotally apparent features of stress: the fact that stressed out people waste their time and energy on all sorts of tasks because they’ve run out of mental space to consider whether a given task was worth it or not. Stressed people get caught in vicious cycles of inefficiency, which they can’t extract themselves from because they’ve passed the cognitive threshold of being able to stand back and look at the big picture. This extends from the ubiquitous low-level stress common in our society, which prevents most people from reconsidering the overall shape of their lives, to more extreme high-level stress that locks people into narrower and narrower paths of possible action. It is the pervasiveness of such stress that isn’t taken into account by lifestyle liberalism, and its injunctions to improve our lives by perfecting our patterns of consumption. Most people can’t become more efficient consumers for the simple reason that they do not have the time, energy, or skill to stand back and redesign their lives wholesale. Small lifestyle changes are major victories for those who are poor in cognitive resources.

What’s the upshot of this then? Well, I think there’s a lot more thinking around this topic to be done before specific prescriptions can be developed, but there is an overall maxim that I’d like to propose on the basis of the general problem of cognitive oppression of which stress is a crucial part. The insight contained in point (c) is that we are always already thinking together, processing practical problems together in more or less explicit ways, from simply providing solutions for problems that others can copy from us simply by enacting them, through selectively picking up and refining one another’s innovations, to actively working out solutions to problems held in common. If the major tactic constitutive of systems of cognitive oppression has been the progressive individualisation of the populace, then the major form of resistance must be the pursuit of cognitive liberation through progressive collectivisation. We must work out how to pool our cognitive resources so as to use them more efficiently together, and through that find forms of individual freedom that are orthogonal to the proliferation of consumer choice.

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