The harsh reality of cognitive limits.

Want to Build Great New Habits?
Interested in the Stunning Research that Changes Everything?
How about The Brain Hack that Makes You a Winner?

Clickbait like this is common, alongside more respectable Serious Yet Slightly Breathless News Items.

I spent several years researching behaviour change and running pilot projects on pro-environmental behaviour. My reading list was measured in feet and inches—I still have a two-foot stack of studies, and those are just my very favourites.

Out of all of this, I found one deeply important insight that explains, or frames, all of the work in the area—even the clickbait.

Our thinking has limits.

Just like we can only run so fast, or jump so high, we can only think so much.

I am going to show how this underpins everything from habits to heuristics—and how it helps us understand how to proceed. And yet this fact is very rarely discussed—and when it is discussed, we usually ignore it only to repeat the same old mistakes.

So, our thinking has limits—which is not so surprising when you think about it. Our brain weighs only about three pounds. It sits inside a body that is fueled by food just a few times a day and still needs to sleep for eight hours.

Our senses take in an enormous amount of data that our brain must manage and select responses for. As Tor Norretranders says:

“The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second – at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits…”

Estimates of how many million bits per second vary, but the average estimate is about 60 million.

60 million bits of data per second flood our senses, but we are conscious of only 40. Not 40 million, just 40. That means we are conscious of just 0.00007% of what we perceive.It is also fun to say Seven hundred-thousandths.

And you wonder why it is hard to get people to read your recycling brochure.

We ruthlessly filter the data pouring in through our senses, sorting and discarding, seeking patterns that would elevate bits from data to information.

A cracking sound in the woods, maybe a silence of birdsong, an observation that the berry bush you are standing by is heavy with delicious fruit—these resolve themselves into “That bear is going to kill me.”

The data has survived the filters and become very useful information.

This is why we have a Novelty Bias. If you are just standing there with nothing happening, you can probably keep standing there and nothing will happen, and so your brain can nod off. It is when something new happens—like the crack of a stick in the silence—that we start to pay attention.Pay attention is one of my favourite phrases. It says it right there—attention comes at a cost.

After you have filtered for what you hope is important, the biases and heuristics keep rolling.

“That bear is going to kill me, now what do I do? Do I freeze? Do I play dead? Do I run?”

“The last time I ran from a bear, I lived to tell the tale—so it will probably work this time…” That is the Similarity Heuristic.

So we are absolutely swamped with data. Furthermore, we—and our brains—evolved in a context that required fast action to secure food and faster action to avoid predators. We simply would not have been able to cope if we had to evaluate and carefully consider every bit of data. So we evolved coping strategies.

filtering  =  coping strategy
cognitive biases  =
 coping strategy
habits  =
 coping strategy
rules of thumb (heuristics)  =
 coping strategy
tribalism  =
 coping strategy
not listening  =
 coping strategy
copying  =
 coping strategy
social choice  =
 coping strategy
doing nothing  =  coping strategy


That is what the clickbait and much of the popular science writing is about—it is research that unveils the coping mechanisms we use to deal with the flood of data flowing through a brain that has limits.

For example, Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Economics Award-winning psychologist and one of the founders of Behavioural Economics. In his wildly popular book Thinking Fast and Slow, he describes how our brains use two systems: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

Kahneman is describing our coping mechanism for a brain that cannot deal with all of the data it receives, and so it manages most of it quickly, with broad strokes, in order to conserve the deliberative resources for fewer—hopefully more important—things.

Researchers such as Roy Baumeister or Jonathan Haidt have drawn from Kahneman and Tversky’s work, and popular books such as Blink, Nudge and Switch reference them heavily. Switch uses Haidt’s metaphor for the two systems—an elephant and it’s rider. One is big and powerful, the other is little, and spends a lot of time thinking. System one, the fast and intuitive process, is what Gladwell discusses in Blink.

The research, the pop science, the clickbait—they are all describing our coping strategies.

Many coping mechanisms work all right; for the most part they have helped humanity plod along to where we are today. But we are startingI am being polite when I say “starting”. to see some spectacular failures. Sometimes we find ourselves unprepared to deal with modern problems using a stone age brain,That Novelty Bias can lead to internet addiction or excessive shopping. and so we  try to hack or tweak our coping mechanisms.

I have lost count of how many pop science articles I have read that describe a cognitive bias and say, “Ah-HAH! A bias! Now all we need to do is hack that bias and we can get back to the par-tay!”

Here is the thing—

The solution increases the problem.

The coping strategy is trying to deal with too much data—and the tweak often just increases the demands on our brain.

If you have a bias evolved to deal with your limited attention, trying to deal with that bias by asking for more attention is…Dumb? A waste of time? Probably going to fail?

But most recommendations for how to deal with our coping strategies still frequently demand attention, and sometimes sustained attention.

This would mean the tweak needs the right information to make it through the filters instead of getting stuck along with the other 60 million bits, if the data doesn’t make it through the filter, then the tweak won’t work. Furthermore, to sustain change using conscious tools would require that the data make it through  the filter over and over again.

And all of this is in competition with huge corporate advertising budgets, the demands of work and family life, and stress of all kinds.

All of this combined with thousands of environmental, social justice and economic issues that must be urgently addressed.

To put it mildly, that seems overly hopeful.

Yet that is what is being proposed whenever a politician says, “It is all about education”, or an environmental group says, “We need to raise awareness”, or a campaign asks you to spread the word, or watch a documentary film.

Every second they have your attention, you are filtering 59,999,960 bits of information, but they feel pretty confident you are going to listen to them.Or perhaps they are confident of something else. I think most politicians are pretty confident that if more education is required, it will be a long time before they have to do anything.

The results speak the truth. We ignore the reality of human cognitive limits, and we design strategies that rely on cognitive capacity we simply do not have.

And so we fail.

What would a better strategy be? I think we must build Compassionate Systems that shape our behaviour or address problems without needing attention. A programmable thermostat eliminates 20% of our heating energy, without attention. A well-designed house can eliminate heating energy, without attention.

I also think we must redesign our democracy. As citizens we cannot keep up with the hundreds of important issues in our country—and if we think our politicians are reading the thousands of pages of reports they get each month we are deluding ourselves; they too are only human. We need electoral and consultation systems that are designed for the brains we have, not the brains we wish we had.



  1. My favorite sentence was the very last one – perhaps because I “filtered” out other important statements. However, changing oneself starts with accepting oneself. And changing society, starts with accepting how society operates, no matter how dysfunctional that process might be.

    “We need electoral and consultation systems that are designed for the brains we have, not the brains we wish we had.”

  2. The “citizen assembly” concept is actually in operation at local government levels across the US. School boards, county councils, planning commissions and police commissions are examples of assemblies of ordinary folk in elected or appointed groups who make the day to day evaluations of issues for the local citizenry. I think it works pretty well.

    That process may even continue to work up to the state and province level most of the time. If, as in the example of the air tanker from your 2015 post, an issue is complicated and alternatives are closely matched in suitability, it may not matter that much which way a decision goes, since any choice lets us muddle through the decision making process and keep going.

    I think that enormous affluence has allowed representative government to work even at the national and supra-national levels. Enormously mistaken decisions, like our building freeways and suburbs, can be remedied for awhile just by throwing more resources at a system that has no viable long term future.

    When our affluence fades away, societies will eventually shrink down to numbers that can make effective decisions collectively. We will become the relatively small tribes that were the original “citizen assemblies”.

    The transition from nations back to tribes will be fraught with danger, but I don’t see any ability for us to smooth the path by making sound national decisions. Here in the US, we have been making bad decisions at that level for decades.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Joe.

      I want to put a finer point on the Citizen’s Assemblies. I see CA being different from school boards, councils and planning commissions in two important ways, the level of inquiry and nonpartisanship.

      The bodies you list above are definitely among the more responsive of our representative democratic organs, by reason of their small scale, as you say. But they are still generally overwhelmed. Sometimes they are volunteer or part-time only. Big decisions can come with literally thousands of pages of staff reports, which they cannot possibly read.

      And, of course, as a former staffer, I can tell you the staff reports are biased.

      So CA tries to drill down into one question. The school board can do the usual budget stuff and staffing stuff, while the CA might look into just one thing, like running school through the summer, or eliminating letter grades.

      The CA on Electoral Reform here in BC was nonpartisan by virtue of primarily using a lottery system. Names were drawn from a hat, then were slightly adjusted to make sure there was proportional gender, racial, and geographic—plus First Nations—representation. Staff dedicated to the CA ensured comprehensive inquiry with information and expert testimony.

      There may have still been bias, but much, much more work went into eliminating it.

      So, I see CA as being needed to deep dive into the wicked problems that are outside the capacity of even our representatives.

      And I agree we won’t be able to make a smooth transition by making national level decisions. A lot of what I am interested in is work we can do now that will prove useful later. So, if we can implement and get used to CA at the municipal level now, I hope it will help us avoid future Tammany Hall and other more feudal options.

  3. First off, many thanks for the Jonathan Haidt reference. I plan to look into some of his writing now. Love Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

    Just wanted to share a short parable here and get your reaction:

    Once upon a time, three young men were walking down a lonely road on their way home from school. They came upon a can at the edge of the road. Abe carelessly flicked the can up onto the roadway with his boot. Upon catching up to the can Bart kicked it a little further up the road. Charley reached the can next and flicked it sideways toward Bart. Bart kicked the can down the road again. And on it went. Three young men like so many cats playing with a mouse before killing it.

    Eventually Abe offered a deep thought. “Here we are kicking the can down the road, just like all the grown-ups – you know, in the metaphor”.

    Bart wondered aloud about Abe’s being such a deep thinker, and as his words faded back to silence the three reached the can once more. Charley gave the can a big boot. He sent it sailing way down the road. “There”, he said, “we won’t need to deal with that problem now for a long time”.

    “Dude”, said Abe in disgust, “we were playing with that.”

    • Do check out Haidt—but also check out his critics. Or at least, if he is right, we should wonder if we can do anything with that information—or is Haidt just another way we can kick the can down the road, a new kind of busy work to keep our paycheques rolling in as the collapse proceeds around us.

      The parable is fantastic. Maybe I am overthinking it, but it seems chilling. It reminds me of a quote from Saramago another friend admires:

      “That’s the whole world right there. The problem is we are blind.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *