Cognitive load and the morning sweat sesh

My first “read” book of 2021 was Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. It’s awesome. And terrifying, if you are someone who is earnestly trying to strive for honesty and believes honesty to be a bedrock of the moral life. (I still question just how far to take the goodness of honesty, but I’ll save any further thoughts for another blog post or maybe a full-length paper OR EVEN A BOOK, you know, FOR FUNSIES.)

Ariely shows all the ways humans fudge the truth, and how easily we fall into falsehoods. It’s not just about the will – so many factors influence the strength of our will, and it’s really silly to think that we can just choose to be perfectly virtuous in any and all circumstances. While I have many thoughts about the book (many of his studies test people’s willingness to lie about something reflecting on their perceived intelligence, and I wonder if the effect would be at all different if the tests were related to another quality?! Something we care less about in U.S. society?), one of the parts that really stuck with me was his description of cognitive load. Basically, our brains are like rooms. They have a specific square footage of space and the more things or furniture you pile into it (the more things you have on your mind), the harder it is to fit anything new (harder to take on a new idea) and the harder it is for any specific aspect of the room to stand out (it’s harder to remember something new or difficult).

Two researchers, Baba Shiv and Sasha Fedorikhin, studied the impact of cognitive load on decision-making in a simple experiment. They divided participants into two groups — individuals in one group were asked to remember a 2-digit number, and individuals in the other group were asked to remember a 7-digit number. All were then told to walk down the hallway and repeat that number to the waiting experimenter. They were promised a monetary reward if they relayed the number correctly; they would lose the reward if they gave an incorrect report.

When the participants walked down the hallway, they (unexpectedly) walked by a cart of food: chocolate cake and bowls of vibrant fruit. As they passed the cart, an experimenter told them that once they reported their number they could come back and pick up a snack, but they had to choose at that moment which they would come back to pick up. They got a piece of paper with their choice written on it and continued on their merry, number-laden way.

Shiv and Fedorikhin found that those who only had two digits to remember chose the fruit much more frequently than those who had the onerous seven digits to relay. As Ariely says, “With their higher-level faculties preoccupied, the seven-digit group was less able to overturn their instinctive desires, and many of them ended up succumbing to the instantly gratifying chocolate cake…. when our deliberative reasoning ability is occupied, the impulsive system gains more control over our behavior.”

Ariely ties cognitive load to the concept of ego depletion. Resisting temptation takes energy. The more we say “no” to things we want without indulging in a “yes”, the more our energy to continue saying “no” diminishes until we eventually, if we push it too far, end up surrendering and succumbing to impulses and raw desires. Raw desires take over our reasoning at some point if we use too much energy forcing ourselves into choices against our strong, instinctive drives. We are not perfect rational robots.

This is a rather silly thing, but I realized that’s why I kind of have to work out in the morning. If I wait until evening, after a day of putting effort into my work, into school, into not eating all the carbs in my cabinet (whyyyyyy do I keep making that delicious cherry chocolate twist bread from Paul Hollywood?!?!?!), I’m more likely to say “screw it” once 6 or 7pm rolls around and curl up on the couch with a book or Netflix and not move a muscle. But I need movement for my physical and mental health. I feel so much better when I incorporate physical movement (both low-impact and strenuous) into my daily routine.

I think cognitive load and ego depletion help explain why I’ve only been consistent with my movement when I plan it into my early morning. I workout in the morning when my cognitive load is lowest, before the overwhelm of work reports and phone calls and emails and metrics and eating healthy hits, and when my energy to choose to do things that aren’t purely pleasurable is at its all-time high.

If I don’t start my long Sunday run when the sun is just coming up, it’s not happening, folks.

As I’m thinking ahead to the semester, I want to remember cognitive load and why and in what way mornings are the best time for me to do the things I’m likely to say “no” to later in the day (saying “no” to my own regret or detriment). Maybe I should devote my early mornings in the months of April and May to finishing and perfecting my graduate course work, to make sure I’m using my brain for those important activities when it is at its least distracted and most focused. Maybe I should be aware of when my stress is creeping up and learn to be flexible with those early mornings — maybe some should be spent in deep meditation, or maybe in some “fun” reading to lighten my overall cognitive load.

It’s fascinating to learn more of how our environment influences even little decisions like whether or not to eat chocolate cake or fruit. While I appreciate how it helps me be more strategic and gracious with myself and my goals and obligations, I really hope it leads us all to be more gracious with others and more strategic in how we help others through our politics and our communities.

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