It’s not that the computer is slow, it’s that it’s doing something else

Cognitive capacity is a scarce resource. The struggle of poverty drains it away like a regressive tax. According to Sendhil Mullainathan

Our results suggest that when you’re poor, money is not the only thing in short supply. Cognitive capacity is also stretched thin. That’s not to say that poor people are less intelligent than others. What we show is that the same person experiencing poverty suffers a cognitive deficit as opposed to when they’re not experiencing poverty. It’s also wrong to suggest that someone’s cognitive capacity has gotten smaller because they’re poor. In fact, what happens is that your effective capacity gets smaller, because you have all these other things on your mind, you have less mind to give to everything else.

Imagine you’re sitting in front of a computer, and it’s just incredibly slow. But then you realize that it’s working in the background to play a huge video that’s downloading. It’s not that the computer is slow, it’s that it’s doing something else, so it seems slow to you. I think that’s the heart of what we’re trying to say.

But what if the poor are only the most outrageous example of such societal intelligence wasting? Which video is your own, more fortunate, brain downloading right now? What could you achieve if you could just kill that background process somehow?

Update: Shalom in the comments gave another great example of misfortune forcibly taking over your mental resources.

People with severe health problems in the family are also hard-pressed to concentrate on constructive activities.

See also “How multitasking messes with your brain” and “Keep thinking, think of it everyday“.

Aside: How can we break out of the consensus trance and stop brooding cuckoo eggs?

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2 Comments

  1. Poverty is only one example.

    People with severe health problems in the family are also hard-pressed to concentrate on constructive activities, for example.

    Shalom

    Like

    • Yes, very true example. Pulled it up into the body of the text.

      Like

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