Post No.: 0220
We all have limited attentional resources – so we can do several things at once but only if they’re all very undemanding and simple intuitive tasks or tasks we’re specifically skilled at doing. If we’re trying to do something complicated and demanding then we must concentrate fully on that task otherwise errors will likely be made. In extreme cases, we might even need so much intense focus on a task that it makes us seemingly blind and deaf to anything else that may be happening in the environment.
Time pressure can trigger ‘system two’ into action if it’s perceived that system two can cope with the task in time. ‘System one’ can only handle one non-simple thing at a time (it can only go as far as detecting simple relationships or integrating information about one thing – it cannot deal with multiple distinct topics simultaneously), thus if multiple non-simple tasks are demanded then system two is called upon (e.g. comparing things according to multiple attributes, combining concepts together, juggling or maintaining in working memory several ideas that require separate actions simultaneously, following rules, making deliberate choices, employing self-control). Regardless, we all still only have a limited furry pool of mental resources to draw upon.
We employ ‘executive control’ whenever we adopt and end sets of tasks or switch between them. Switching rapidly between multiple tasks in working memory when tackling multiple distinct tasks simultaneously (so any task that requires keeping several ideas or operations in mind at the same time e.g. retaining the thread of one sentence while reading another – ahem) always involves time pressure since working memories decay very rapidly, as we try to refresh, update and rehearse what’s in our working memory to try to keep it there before it’s forgotten. What would help is breaking tasks down into smaller and easier steps, writing things down so that we can relieve our working memories, or taking our time.
If we feel something is too much for our brains though then we may decide to give the task up. If we know or perceive from the outset that a task or set of tasks will be beyond even our system two (conscious efforts) then we might not even bother trying in the first place. The most effortful forms of deliberate thinking are those that require you to think fast. Pupil dilation is highly correlated with mental effort (as well as emotional arousal in general) – more dilation means more mental effort is currently being employed. So if one examines someone’s eyes, one can see whether they’re putting in the focused mental effort, they’ve just found an answer or just given up trying! Wearing sunglasses could therefore be a way to hide one’s level of interest from others (e.g. during a game of poker). The body is usually involved too (e.g. our muscles tense, blood pressure rises and heart rate increases with increased mental effort). A person skilled at a specific task will exhibit less mental effort compared to an unskilled person when performing that task though – skill usually involves efficiently and quickly dealing with large amounts of information.
Chatting casually is a conscious system two task but for most people is a low effort task. On typical days, system two mostly operates at a low level, sometimes at a middle level and only on the rare occasion at a frantically high level (doing at least equivalent to storing seven digits in one’s memory for immediate recall) due to applying ‘the principle of least effort’ – we’ll naturally choose the path of least resistance/effort or generally not expend any more energy than we think we’ll need to get a task done.
Our limited abilities to pay attention and exert mental effort means one shouldn’t try to do something else that requires a lot of mental effort whilst one is, for instance, driving. A certain level of multi-tasking is possible when e.g. combining a visual and an auditory task together because they utilise different senses, but still at a reduced ability compared to concentrating on one task at a time, hence why a driver will tend to stop talking when reverse parking into a tight space, and (adult) passengers will understand this and will tend to stop talking with the driver too and will even suspect that he/she will be temporarily deaf anyway as he/she fully concentrates on the manoeuvre. Or when walking, even at a gentle pace, we might end up gradually stopping in our tracks if asked to immediately solve a tough logic question in our heads.
But multi-tasking is not possible at all when e.g. combining two auditory tasks together – in such cases, we consciously flit our attention between each task continually, hence why we have great trouble listening to two people at once. With practice, we can somewhat improve our speed and efficiency at switching between tasks we’ve specifically practised doing, but it’ll still likely be better to concentrate on one task at a time (e.g. listening to one person at a time). Overall, multi-tasking is not recommended if we want to do good or thorough jobs, which means it might be acceptable if we’re not that bothered about how well or fast we do something (e.g. texting while watching a partially-interesting TV programme).
The wide range of very different tasks that interfere with each other supports the existence of a single general resource pool of attention and effort regarding most tasks (e.g. trying to solve a difficult multiplication problem in one’s head employs some visualisation too hence one should not attempt one when simultaneously cycling on a busy road). When our working memories are overloaded, we will struggle, which can lead to choking under pressure, for instance. Self-control and deliberate thought both draw upon the same limited mental resource of effort too, hence self-control suffers when we’re busy or under pressure. Hard-sell sales techniques employ pressure to try to overwhelm our self-control (e.g. limited time offers to exploit the fear of missing out).
We’ve probably all experienced somebody who was physically present yet not attentive to us when their minds were focused on something else. Obviously we won’t be able to recall our own episodes of absent-mindedness because we’ll genuinely not have encoded the words that someone else said even though they genuinely did say those words to us – both sides therefore need greater empathy to understand that both sides could be telling the truth! Woof!
Even walking faster than we’re used to or intense physical activity won’t allow us to pay attention to or think about much else except the walk or physical activity easily or clearly (thus, at the right level of intensity, such activities can often bring about a state of being mentally in the present, or mindfulness). The mere anticipation of a high-effort task will alone mobilise activity in many areas of the brain to ready it for the upcoming task.
Cognitive tasks, trying to inhibit our emotions, and even concentrating on physical tasks, all share a common pool of mental energy, and we can give up/in if this pool depletes. Willpower or self-control draws upon this limited pool of mental resources and ability to expend effort and so if this pool is used up, we can experience ‘ego depletion’ – exerting great self-control in one task can lead us to exert less self-control in a following, even unrelated, task. (Albeit another contributory reason for this behaviour could be because one thinks being ‘virtuous’ in one task e.g. exercising, psychologically permits one to self-reward by being ‘less strict on oneself’ in a later task e.g. drinking!) Although related, ego depletion is not the same mental state as being cognitively busy – it concerns our self-control and motivation rather than our cognitive workload.
Anything that involves mental conflict and the need to suppress a natural/instinctive tendency will deplete our self-control. After ego depletion (e.g. from a long day at work), one can turn to temptation (e.g. unhealthy junk food), default choices, quitting easily or aggression instead of thinking things through. When tired, we’re less likely to check what we’d done or said. This is why soldiers and other people who’ll likely face extremely stressful situations train by repeating ‘standard operating procedures’ – these will become ingrained with practice to be the ‘default’ course of action to save people in such situations from having to think under those circumstances, when they’ll otherwise possibly freeze, panic or do something rash.
A weak/weakened system two can mean one impulsively tends to say the first thing that comes to mind, and can mean one will likely have trouble delaying gratification. Self-control requires effort, but putting in the effort requires self-control! Sufficient motivation or incentives can influence our willingness to employ self-control to a degree though. Mental energy is physical energy so ensure your blood glucose levels are sufficient too. (Therefore, if you can help it, have your parole hearing just after lunch rather than just before, since the ego-depleted default option for a parole officer is the denial of parole!)
System one has more influence if system two is busy (e.g. if one is cognitively stressed with anxious thoughts) – leading one to maybe fall into temptation or biases such as being more impulsive, gluttonous, self-centred, bigoted, vain or superficial. This is usually temporary (e.g. aggressively telling someone to get lost when one is under pressure with a deadline) but chronically stressful situations or occupations can cause people to be chronically selfish, aggressive or superficial, at least when they’re in that job.
A higher general intelligence can make any task more effortless and therefore less stressful to complete though – thus maybe those who succumb to extreme selfishness, avarice, etc. need to be more generally intelligent to counter the effects of what they consider to be a highly stressful job?! (Of course other factors also play a role e.g. the type of people who choose to enter these careers in the first place and the culture of a workplace.) It also shows that these people may not normally be selfish, aggressive or superficial but being constantly exposed to that stressful environment can bring out the worst, unregulated (by system two censorship/self-control) social traits out of them. Indeed, many reality TV show contestants confess to behaving not like they normally do away from such spotlights (e.g. they’re far more spiteful or snappy on screen) because they perceive the unusual situation as a highly self-conscious and stressful one. (Albeit an additional explanation might be that these people were specifically chosen to appear on these shows to stoke drama precisely because of their exceptionally biased self-perceptions, as well as the way these types of shows tend to be contrived to elicit dramatic conflicts intentionally. Well the main/real business of these shows is show business – if people didn’t watch them then they wouldn’t be produced!)
Being happy and comfortable obviously reduces cognitive strain and frees up mental capacity that can be more fully directed towards an intended task at hand. Doing any task that requires any amount of cognitive effort requires applying the effort of self-control and discipline (e.g. to not be distracted by something elsewhere) – except when we’re in a state of ‘flow’, which is when we’re in that optimal state between boredom and frustration, where focused attention towards a task requires no conscious need to exert the effort of self-control at all, thereby freeing mental resources for optimally performing the task presently at hand. During flow, one doesn’t need to struggle to stay on task because one is being intrinsically stimulated by the task itself. It’s a joyful state of effortless concentration so deep that we can lose our sense of time, ourselves and our problems (see Post No.: 0192 for more).
In summary, we have limited attentional and mental resources, which when depleted can bring out the worst in us. But if we understand them better and be more sympathetic to them then we’ll be fine.