Does cognitive science relieve us of responsibility--or require us to redirect our effort?

Mark D. White

In this morning's New York Times, James Atlas discusses recent books about cognitive processes and neuroscience, such as Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works, Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, and Leonard Mlodinow's Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Atlas highlights several interesting things about this publishing trend, including the increasingly analytical focus on the "how" of thought rather than the more existential "why," and the shrinking space allowed for true agency to operate amid of the ever-expanding, hidden wiring in the brain. The latter concern motivates the title of his piece, "The Amygdala Made Me Do It" as well as his characterization of this genre as "Can't-Help-Yourself" books.

Even though I'm an advocate of autonomy, willpower, and self-knowledge myself, I find little to be troubled by here, and quite a bit to be excited about. Freud, of course, posited that much of our thought happens under the surface, and this idea has been brought into modern experimental psychology and described in books such as Timothy D. Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious (which I highly recommend). And it is the title of Wilson's more recent book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, that suggests a positive interpretation of these developments, as described by Atlas:

The Power of Habit and Imagine belong to a genre that has become increasingly conspicuous over the last few years: the hortatory book, armed with highly sophisticated science, that demonstrates how we can achieve our ambitions despite our sensory cluelessness.

The discovery of increasing levels of complex scaffolding underneath conscious thought processes need not threaten intentional choice, but rather help to enable it. Citing David Hume, Williams James, and Daniel Kahneman (no Adam Smith, Jonathan!), Atlas focuses on the importance of habits to everyday action, and how the conscious mind can redirect those habits for its own ends, such as countering a habit of watching TV with a healthier habit of exercising. Such a person is making an intentional and strategic choice by harnessing the power of habit; our habitual nature is thus transformed from a liability to an asset, from a weight to a tool.

The danger lies in letting the easy intertia of habit take over and forgetting we have the responsibility to choose which habits to nurture and which to reject. The current picture of our brains casts each of us as the CEO of our minds rather than the entry-level employee or even middle manager: we have the ability to command and direct our cognitive resources, but we retain responsibility for what we do with them.

Willpower and poverty

Mark D. White

Just read a very interesting article from The New Republic by Jamie Holmes titled "Why Can't More Poor People Escape Poverty?", detailing new work on the intersection of psychological studies of ego depletion and self-management--the work by Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, and others that I've cited widely in my own work on willpower--and economists working on development and poverty.

The basic insight in that deprivation imposes greater cognitive costs on the poor since the relative scarcity of resources leads to higher negative consequences of choice (even in decision-making contexts that seem trivial to the wealthy) and therefore greater decision-making costs (with respect to trade-offs as well as self-control problems), which in turn makes the ascent out of poverty all the more difficult. Some reasonable policy suggestions are offered at the end, which (thankfully) do not veer into Nudge territory, but which mostly involve increasing options for leveraging willpower.

A very worthwhile read, and a fascinating application of the psychological work on willpower to a pressing economic problem.