The economics of anxiety

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.

Yeah, I get that a lot.

I like the concept of decision fatigue. For one thing it’s a neat little piece of research to have to hand when arguing with people who believe that the country’s social problems are essentially a matter of Other People not getting up early enough, or failing to get three meals out of an organically reared chicken, or persistently watching their big flatscreen telly rather than, I dunno, buying an old cathode tube one off ebay or something, seeing as you can’t actually buy a non flatscreen telly in the shops any more. If willpower is a finite resource, all the small survival decisions that come with being poor and having to worry about money deplete your resources very early in the day. They make your life mentally harder. Apparently there is some scarily literal science behind all this – it is a matter of glucose depletion (pdf).

You will notice that much of the popular chat about this is couched in terms of temptation – resisting the cake makes it harder to resist the fag. Hence smoking, drinking, poor diets etc as a social problem. But people don’t seem to talk so much about the implications for general anxiety and related foibles, across all classes (reference to mental health is buried in the “Implications” section of the study linked to above).

And yet this is one of the key applications for the concept. In the case of both poverty and anxiety disorders, decision fatigue has the potential to make you poor at, not just later decisions, but big decisions. This is a killer. In both situations is the chronic battle against a stream of small problem-solving, decision-making exercises that mean you will rarely have the mental energy for big picture stuff like quitting smoking, or looking for another job.

Being not quite in either camp, I have found that the concept galvanises me to actually sweat the small stuff less, rather than just nodding glumly when people tell me that is what I should do. As far as anxiety goes I only have low-level common-or-garden crazy. For me, knowing that the thinking resource is finite is a useful brake on looking for problems to expend it on. And in the name of my sporadic quest for eliminating residual crazy, it occurs to me that there is one area of enquiry that has developed models to deal with exactly this problem of scarce resources: economics. Has anyone ever applied relevant models from the field to the problem of dealing with one’s own anxiety? Behavioural economics is a lively sub-field interested in human behaviour in given situations, our calculations, our perception of variables and so on. But economists – or maybe just people – being what they are, behavioural economics tends to conceive of people as indivisible wholes interacting with each other. What if there was a branch of behavioural economics devoted to teasing out the most resource-efficient way to interact and negotiate with oneself?

With any luck someone will now tell me this exists.


  1. You might find the following paper interesting (it is open access, so no subscription required):

    The first part of the paper is a review of the arguments about using nudge policy. But the later part discusses the implications of limited cognitive resources for the conception of the liberal individual and, briefly, argues that you could develop an argument that nudge has the possibility to enhance autonomy by allowing people to economise on the small decisions (not sweating the small stuff) – in an analogy with Berlin’s concept of positive liberty.

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