Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mental Bandwidth and Willpower Bandwidth

This is an email I sent to Sendhil Mullainathan. Unfortunately, he never replied to me. It is in reference to a discussion between these two economists, discussing the concept that the extra mental distractions arising from managing in poverty conditions (e.g., "which bill do I pay") detract from total "mental bandwidth", thus making poor parents less able to attend to the needs of their children. While I think there is something to that concept (though it could also easily become an excuse), that is not the application of the mental bandwidth concept that interests me.
I caught some of your bloggingheads discussion with Glenn Loury. I am intrigued by the mental bandwidth concept. It reminds me of the "finite willpower" concept that was in the air a few years ago (I believe promulgated by Dr. Roy Baumeister). One feature of this theory is that willpower is a lot like physical endurance--although one's capacity can be developed somewhat over time, it is a finite resource in the short-term. So, the more willpower expended on solving a hard intellectual problem, the less available for dieting. The more spent on training for an athletic event, the less available for managing the budget. Etc.

A feature of the concept was the notion that willpower could be built up, like a muscle or like endurance. So I wonder if you think that is true for mental bandwidth. Either that it can be built up, or at least we can train ourselves to focus our bandwidth on useful things (economics, health information, developing skills) and less on useless stuff (keeping track of celebrities, indulging conspiracy theories), etc.

It is probably evident from the way I phrased the above, but this is a pet theory of mine. I consider myself a generalist. I am constantly dismayed at how under-informed and not intellectually curious people are. I attribute this largely to the fact that in today's age of specialization, economic success is typically derived from being very, very good at one specific thing. So specialization is where all the mental bandwidth goes.

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