Day 282 – Economizing on Brain Power

October 9, 2009

I had an interesting concept brought up to me today while I was discussing the difference between rationality and reason with Professor Lea. To try to understand the difference, we did a thought experiment about making choices. When a person makes a choice, he or she weighs the expected utility (broadly defined) of each unit, ranks the units by preference, then chooses the one with the highest utility. This happens whether or not a person is conscious of it, and it is a systematic way of making choices and rationally fulfilling ends. Professor Lea and I both understood this.

How, then, do we account for people who are stuck in a routine (i.e. walk the same way to class every day, go through the motions, eat the same thing almost daily, etc)? Is that routine irrational because it is not a systematic way of making choices, and one does it without thinking? At what point does a decision become a routine? Why is it rational one day because it is based on a systematic choice, and irrational the next day because it is part of a routine and not thought about?

After much thought, Professor Lea remembered an answer Hayek had to a similar question: individuals economize on brain power. This means that people go through a routine because it requires less brain power. Scarcity is a reality for brain power, too, so whenever individuals can economize on it, they do. This manifests itself frequently when individuals are involved in projects that take a lot of thinking.

I recognized it about myself when I am writing papers–I don’t think about small details like where I am going to eat for dinner. I just pick somewhere close and eat something on the menu that I frequently eat. When I am writing a paper, I try not to devote a lot of power to deciding on small details like where to eat, what to wear, where to study, etc. I just pick the first available option (within reason) in those cases.

Individuals aren’t being irrational, for the most part, when they follow habits or routines. Yes, those individuals are not making active choices and weighing the costs and expected benefits, but they are economizing on brain power and falling back on choices they previously made. This has huge implications which I will cover another time.