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Cognitive Economics: The Competition for Your Attention

I stumbled across this fantastic podcast on NPR, you can either give it a listen, or read on for a quick summary.

Then we will apply this new viewpoint to the subject of gaming addiction, and how video game companies employ selfish strategies to the detriment of our attention.

Cognitive Economics is "the economics of what happens inside our brains" - namely, our brain's most starved resource: attention.

There are always multiple things competing for your attention - the TV, a video game, a friend sending you a message, chores that need to be done, your legs which feel tight and need some exercise, or your lofty dream of becoming an astronaut someday. Which will you choose which to concentrate on? Will you attempt to multi-task, or prioritize the things that are most important? Will you focus on the most important task, and forget the rest? Will you realize that you are in a distracted state, and try to write down a to-do list?

The decision-making process in our brains (how our brain decides what to focus on) has consequences in the real world. Some things are much easier to focus on than other things - even if they're not as important - and this "malfunction" in your attention can slow your progress towards long-term goals.

Your attention is a very scarce resource.

If you have a certain amount of money, and you want to buy the best combination of products, you want to be extremely careful in spending this money to get the greatest reward. Why can't we do the same with our attention? Why is it that we so often get distracted, or run out of energy, feel lazy, and end up wasting our time? Why would our brains ever do this to us?

Lee Caldwell, from the podcast, explains: Your attention's "optimization" happens at a given moment. You can't plan out your attention ahead of time - you can only focus in the "right now". But if you set up your environment, your time, or train yourself in the right way, you can better control your attention to focus on the things that will lead to success in the long term - which is what we all wish we could do all the time, but struggle with actually carrying it out.

We can set conditions for our attention, so that our moment-to-moment optimization makes us happy in the long run.

But when our brain feels tired and defeated, how can we maintain our focus on the long-term, when we crave a win in 30 minutes or less?

Delayed gratification plays a big role in attention. Because the brain is constantly deciding - should I focus on a reward one year from now? Or a reward 30 minutes from now? You could understand how this plays a major role in understanding cognitive economics.

Lee Caldwell then explains why anybody ever works towards long-term goals: because we care about our future self, and when we give our brains time to simulate how we might feel in the future, we want our future self to feel good. By simulating this, our brain gains an image of the reward that our future self will experience and feels rewarded. If my future self will be happy, then I will also be happy in this moment, because my happy future self will soon exist. This also applies to people we care about. Sometimes we do things that help them, even if they're not present or won't receive the reward for a while.

Simulating how our future self will feel, or how people we care about feel, helps us to become better people.

Lee Caldwell wraps up the podcast by explaining that companies use Cognitive Economics to design their products to capture attention.

But we can fight these tactics, by being aware of our attention, and training ourselves to understand how our attention works, to ultimately focus on the things we care most deeply about.

From the viewpoint of Cognitive Economics, what is a video game?

Remember that your attention is your brain's scarcest resource?

Also keep in mind that every so often, your attention observes itself, and then has to ask itself: "Is this worth focusing on? What goal am I working towards?". You might see how this takes a lot of mental energy.

Video games are an opportunity for your brain to say "screw it" and do exactly what it wants so badly: to stop observing itself (which feels exhausting), and instead just focus on whatever seems to pop up on the screen - because video games provide lots of rewards, and if it's an effective video game, it absorbs all our attention. Which is way the most popular games are difficult to win.

Video games provide short-term rewards for a high demand of your attention. So why would anyone ever play a video game, if it's so expensive?

Because when you feel bad, you become really desperate to feel good again, and video games provide some easy goals to focus on. When you're not paying attention to how much life sucks, you won't feel bad.

And so video games optimize ALL your attention to focus on the short-term rewards - they don't even give you time to think, "Have I spent enough time on video games yet? Should I go do my chores? How will my future self feel when I waste all my time on this game?"

If I realize video games are interfering with my long-term goals, what should I do?

  1. Spend time observing your thoughts. Never be critical of your thoughts - just observe them and then let them go. Then reflect on how powerful it is to be mindful, and how this is a good thing to invest in, because you are literally optimizing your attention - your brain's scarcest resource.

  2. Love your future self. Spend time realizing that your future self someone you want to be best friends with and care for. Also surround yourself with people that will benefit when you become successful.

  3. Manage your stress better. The best thing to do, is accept the things that feel the worst that you can't change, and then commit yourself to changing the things that you can improve. Don't react to things that feel bad - instead focus on observing your thoughts, focus on what is helpful and practical for your future.

  4. Stop being so hard on yourself. Every time you judge your thoughts in a negative way, you're setting yourself up to be more likely to seek out self-destructive behavior, like bingeing on video games.

  5. Cardio. There are so many studies that prove over and over again, that exercise is the #1 solution for any problem you're facing - mental or physical. Ever since I started training for a 10K again, I started feeling better - more focused, more energetic, and happier.

You can do it! :D