“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
What are you up to this Sunday?
Think carefully, because how you answer that question just could be the key to fixing the economy, clarifying your love life, stopping global warming and creating the world’s first truly perfect slice of pizza.
I’m not hawking some mind-blowing seminar, I’m literally interested in how you answer the question. Recently I’ve been scouring a mix of economics, psychology, and cognitive science to try to understand how the human mind makes decisions about time. Decisions about time shape our lives more than decisions about money, votes, food, or pretty much anything else. Think about the time that’s passed in your life so far. That time has been put into school, work and relationships. It’s given you a set of skills, experiences and connections to others that define who you are.
There a big decisions about time, like where to go to school or what city to live in, that have come at major inflection points in your life. Mid-sized decisions, like what classes to take or what hobbies to pick, shape your skills and interests and are no less important in defining who you are. And those tiny decisions, like who to call up on a Sunday afternoon, are what aggregated over time to create your friendships, your romantic relationships, and (I’m willing to bet) some of your life’s most memorable experiences. Was it all random? Or is there a rhyme and reason to these decisions, some compass that’s directed you (for better or worse) to where you find yourself today?
The existing theories on this subject fall into two camps: those who believe (essentially for convenience) that human beings are rational creatures making decisions in our own best interest. Another, more cynical camp believes that we are fundamentally irrational, making decisions out of a random mix of neurological parlor tricks and justifying them in hindsight. I’d like to argue a third theory: that when we make decisions about time the human mind is superrational: capable of not only pursuing our own self-interest, but of optimizing that self-interest with that of our loved ones, our communities, our societies, and the global biosphere on which we depend.
To understand superrational decision making, let’s return to the question at the beginning of this post, what I’ll call the “Free Time Problem.” If you’ve got a chunk of free time, how do you decide to spend it?
This seemingly trivial question is enough to kick both the rationalists and irrationalists out into the cold.
The Problem with Rationality
Rationalists assert that, when presented with a decision, we gather all available data, carefully weigh our options, and choose the path that best serves our self-interest. This may work when you’re choosing between brands of orange juice, but it falls apart when free time comes into the mix and the options are infinite. Your Sunday options include (but are by no means limited to):
- Calling your poor lonely grandma
- Re-reading that textbook you promised yourself you’d re-read
- Watching John Cusack movies all day
- Forming a Death Metal Band
- Hopping a plane to Mount Kilimanjaro
Then again, there’s nothing to stop you from buying tickets along with your new bandmates, throwing a portable DVD player and the textbook in your bag (it’s a long flight), and calling Buba from the security line. Rationality just can’t handle the endless options and combinations of options that a free Sunday presents.
The Problem with Irrationality
So maybe our Sundays are perfectly irrational, nothing but a bunch of random neurons firing and instincts flaring that we poetically justify after the fact. If that were the case we’d spend all our free time mindlessly blundering about reacting to food, sex and shiny objects. A lot of people seem to spend their Sundays that way, and I’m not trying to knock it, but the irrationalists have yet to explain those Sundays that we spend joyfully creating things. If we spend free time creating art, it has a nasty habit of turning out to be the art that we needed to create. When we spend it building friendships, those friendships often wind up evolving to fit who we are and what we need to be happy. The spoils of a well-spent Sunday are often aligned with parts of our self-interest that we weren’t even aware of on Saturday night. That’s too much of a coincidence to chalk up to pure irrationality.
The actual, superrational way that we spend our Sundays is based on a combination of mood and habit. Those two words have a somewhat whimsical reputation, but I’d like to argue that under the right circumstances they can make us almost scarily smart. Let’s look at them in depth:
Habit is the accumulation of your past experiences: all of the food you’ve eaten, all of the people you’ve talked to, all of the sports you’ve played. I like to think of habits as a series of threads running from you to a large but limited number of activities with which you have experience. Some of these threads are thicker than others. That guy you haven’t seen since highschool probably has a thin fishing line, while Scott, the best friend that you talk to every day, has a thick cord of rope.
Habits solve the problem of infinite choice that confounds the rationalists. They bound our Sunday decisions to a limited (if large) set of options. Whatever I decide to do on Sunday will just be a new iteration of something I’ve done before. Even if strike out in search of a completely new experience, I’m likely to strike out in a way that I’ve struck out before, or in a way that I read about somewhere. There’s a very logical reason for this reliance on habit: unless we know what to expect from a given Sunday activity, we have no basis on which to decide whether or not to do it. Our minds automatically blot out the endless array of activities that are outside of our realm of experience, and focus on our existing threads. The thicker the habitual thread, the more likely it is to receive emphasis. What thread we choose will depend on our mood.
Mood is a systemic aggregation of priorities, which is a fancy way of saying “what you feel like doing.” The interesting thing about mood is that we rarely feel just one. We’re not hungry, tired, fidgety, social, OR introspective; we’re hungry, tired, fidgety, social AND introspective all at once. When we make decisions about free time, we juggle an almost impossibly complicated web of competing priorities. Our digestive systems want to eat, our muscles want to move around, our endocrine system wants to settle down for a snooze. Just as many priorities originate from outside of our bodies. If you hang out with Scott every Sunday, then you may be worried about breaking tradition and letting him down. If you promised another friend you’d read her screenplay, then it may be important to you that you live up to that promise.
With a surprisingly small amount of thought your mind is capable of assessing all of these priorities, pulling out the most urgent, combining them, and feeding them to you as an emotional state. Once a half dozen priorities get in the mix such emotions can become incredibly precise, and some of us are better at understanding them than others.
To actually decide what you’re going to do, you need to remix your habits to fulfill your moods. You’re like a DJ, pulling together bits of old records to create something new. You won’t be able to fulfill all of your competing priorities, but if you’re good (and most of us are good) you’ll come up with an activity that handles a healthy chunk of them. You and Scott both love biking, so why not bike by that sandwich shop you’ve both been meaning to try, then head up to the top of that cliff that you discovered with your girlfriend last Fourth of July. You can relax, eat your sandwiches, and bring the script so that Scott can help you comment on it. Script: check, Scott: check, food: check, muscles: check, rest: check. And you did it all without drifting too far from the beaten path, in the four minutes that you spent casually sipping coffee. Not bad.
The most incredible about this sort of superrational decision making is that it’s practically effortless. After waking up with a feat of creative optimization that would make most corporate strategy departments pale with jealousy, you’ll spend the rest of your Sunday offering a nonstop repeat performance. When you call Scott you’ll remix your plan to also account for most of HIS priorities without skipping a beat. When you order your sandwich, you’ll balance your nutritional requirements with your cultural flavor preferences, the subtle facial tics of the cute woman behind the counter, and respect for Scott’s recent experiment with vegetarianism. When you finally sit down at the beach (Scott wanted to try out his new surf board), your muscles, endocrine and digestive systems will take the opportunity to go through the precise repairs that they need to keep you going in just the warm, relaxed environment that they need to do it. You’re just that good.
Superrational Decision Making:
- Optimizes across competing priorities
- Remixes past experiences
- Happens continuously
- (There’s not a single moment of decision so much as a constant stream of decisions.)
- Happens seamlessly across scale
- You choose your restaurant, then your sandwich, then how big a bite to take.
- You choose who to hang out with, then what to talk about, then how to construct your sentence.
This is great news: we’re very good at finding creative solutions that his multiple priorities at a time when the world has more competing priorities than ever. If our endocrine systems and sandwich-related needs weren’t enough, we’ve got a global economic collapse and climate crisis on our hands. If we want to solve these problems, we’ll need to learn how to put our penchant for superrational decision making into overdrive.
The bad news is that it’s also remarkably easy for us to block this amazing ability if we drift into the wrong mindset. If we lack emotional intelligence and can’t interpret those complicated moods we’ll wind up fulfilling our priorities one by one and never quite feeling satisfied. If we lose the open-mindedness to think past our most common habits we’ll just spend this Sunday doing what we do every Sunday, even if it makes us miserable. If we become so tied up in obligations that we never get free time to work with, then our incredible skills at superrationality will atrophy for lack of use.
We owe it to ourselves to explore this remarkable ability. Next time you get some free time (or make some), have some respect for the way that you delve into your emotional cues and for the way that you pull options from your past experience and for the way that you mix the two together. Practice doing each just a little bit harder, and see where it takes you.
(I should note that what I describe here is different from, but possibly related to, the canonical definition of superrationality. If you have thoughts on a better term or additional reading, please drop me a line!)