The sociology of thinking and cognitive mechanisms

I listened to an interesting podcast earlier, in which the psychologist Eldar Shafir discusses the ‘tunnelling effect’ produced by scarcity. This is how Oliver Burkeman describes their argument:

“Scarcity captures the mind,” explain Mullainathan and Shafir. It promotes tunnel vision, helping us focus on the crisis at hand but making us “less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled”. Wise long-term decisions and willpower require cognitive resources. Poverty leaves far less of those resources at our disposal.

Their most arresting claim is that the same effects kick in – albeit not always with such grave implications – in any conditions of scarcity, not just lack of money. Chronically busy people, suffering from a scarcity of time, also demonstrate impaired abilities and make self-defeating choices, such as unproductive multi-tasking or neglecting family for work. Lonely people, suffering from a scarcity of social contact, become hyper-focused on their loneliness, prompting behaviours that render it worse. In one sense, Mullainathan and Shafir concede, scarcity is so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless. But the feeling of scarcity – of not having as much of something as you believe you need – is something more specific and agonising. To use the authors’ favourite metaphor, life under such conditions is like packing a tiny suitcase for a trip. It entails a ceaseless focus on difficult trade-offs: the umbrella or the extra sweater? The greatest freedom that money can buy is the freedom from thinking about money – or, to quote Henry David Thoreau, “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone”.

When reading this I was struck by how readily this tunnelling under conditions of scarcity can be invoked as a cognitive mechanism explaining the emergence of what Margaret Archer calls fractured reflexivity. This is how I’ve summarised her argument about this in the past:

These people are the fractured reflexives and, for a wide range of reasons, their deliberations tend to intensify distress and disorientation rather than bringing them to any conclusion about what to do or who to be. Their common denominator is that their self-talk intensifies affect rather than producing an action orientation. Those whose internal conversation takes this form regularly “admit to huge difficulties in making decisions, in defining courses of action to be consistently pursued and, above all, in engaging in anything more than the survivalist’s day-to-day planning” (Archer 2012: 248). The point is not that these people are somehow unable to function but rather than the fractured nature of their reflexivity makes ‘functioning’ intensely onerous, characterised by an intensity of introspection that is both a response to the stress and anxiety which circumstances provoke but also a cause of it, as the absence of any consistent orientation towards the practical question life poses will tend to cumulatively add to an individual’s problems. They accrue objective penalties through prevarication, indecisiveness or avoidance because the necessity of selection doesn’t go away simply because they struggle to respond to it purposively and “subjectively, they undergo profound mental distress and experience a disorientation that is qualitatively distinct from the anger and unfairness experienced by many in modernity” (Archer 2012: 290)

I’ll have to read Eldar Shafir’s work before I can assess whether he is postulating a mechanism in the sense in which I mean the term. However hearing this podcast about economic decision making left me with a greater degree of clarity about the approach I want to take to the sociology of thinking: using the psychological literature to elucidate the cognitive mechanisms underlying personal and social reflexivity, using the former to revise the latter where the account of reflexivity I’m working with is inconsistent with well-established empirical findings about human cognition. However I think I also have a strong position from which to read the psychological literature critically because approaching it from the perspective of the sociology of thinking allows me to open up a space of questions about how social and cultural context condition cognitive processes.

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