2011-10-27

The Cognitive Time-Horizon

Health news agencies are buzzing (example) about a recent study that seems to have discovered a link between certain hormones and weight re-gain after weight loss. The researchers have apparently discovered that after the body loses weight, hormones are secreted that try to get the body to put the weight back on again.

This makes some logical sense, when you think about it. If a healthy person suddenly experiences significant weight loss, it is usually indicative of health problems. The body would want to "compensate for the weight loss" and return the body back to a healthy state. Obese people, on the other hand, find themselves fighting a process that is designed to keep them healthy, but which is triggered at a time that they don't want it triggered.

It is fascinating news that demonstrates an important concept in the Stationary Waves philosophy. I call this concept the cognitive time-horizon. I am unaware of whether or not it exists elsewhere by any other name.

What Is the Cognitive Time-Horizon?
The cognitive time-horizon is the length of time over which a person is capable of conducting some kind of internal cost-benefit analysis.

Let's look at a couple of simple examples:
  1. Your friends invite you to spend all next week in Las Vegas. Whether this is a good idea really depends on what your other obligations are. If you have no conflicting work or family obligations, then why not? But if you plan on running a marathon the following months, then the question becomes whether you can afford to compromise your training regimen so close to the event for which you're training. Therefore, according to a one-week time-horizon, you should go on the trip; on a one-month time-horizon, you should not.
  2. Your grandma asks you if you'd like another slice of pie. You're still hungry and everyone else is having a second piece, too, so why not? But if you are overweight and have been trying to lose a few pounds, then the question becomes whether you would rather enjoy an extra slice of pie, or whether you might enjoy yourself a bit more if you succeeded in losing a few pounds. Therefore, according to an instantaneous time-horizon, you should eat the pie; on a one-year time-horizon, you should not.
Choices present themselves to us throughout the course of any one day. Our decisions will almost always be different depending on the length of the cognitive time-horizon used to assess the situation.

Happiness and Time
Certain time-dependent choices are no-brainers. It is better to throw someone a great surprise party than it is to reveal the surprise early. It is better to save some money and get a good education than it is to live paycheck to paycheck. It is better to put some money away for the future than it is to spend every red cent you have...

Of course, the vast majority of life's choices aren't so easy. Is it better to postpone working for two more years and get a Master's Degree, or is it better to spend those two years on-the-job acquiring hands-on skills and experience? Is it better to enjoy the finer things of life liberally while you're young enough to appreciate them, or is it better to restrict yourself to a regimented diet and exercise plan from a very early age?

The longer the time horizon, the more complex the issues involved. Eating a piece of grandma's pie right now, on an instantaneous time-horizon is always a "yes." Extending the time-horizon a few hours presents the pie as a trade-off between pie now or having a healthy appetite at dinner time. Extending the time-horizon across the course of a month presents a choice between eating treats regularly and having a healthy body and figure. Extending the time-horizon to decades into the future presents as trade-off between grandma's pie and diabetes.

Each different time-horizon presents its own unique version of what yields the greatest happiness. 

Too short a time-horizon results in a life lived purely according to whim. Whatever makes sense or feels good in the moment is what you will choose to do. Whatever good or bad things are happening now is what you believe about the future in perpetuity. The past, future, and present all become the same thing and therefore the relationship between each (and virtually every cause-and-effect relationship for that matter) completely disappears.

Too long a time-horizon may seem silly at times, but is otherwise not really a problem. Those with a very long cognitive time-horizon are perfectly capable of engaging in shorter-term analyses.

Thus, people in general should always seek to develop and extend their cognitive time-horizons.

The Importance of the Cognitive Time-Horizon
More and more, I have come to the belief that people have difficulty assessing longer-range cognitive time-horizons. It is this "psycho-epistemological" shortcoming that prevents many people from being able to understand the Austrian theory of money and the business cycle. It is also this shortcoming that leads people to drug abuse, self-destructive behaviors, poor moral choices, and objectionable politics.

You may not always agree with what I happen to say about morality and politics, but it is extremely crucial that you approach every issue from both a short and a long time-horizon in order to get a better sense of the issues involved.

In the end, it really comes down to being able to conceive of how one event impacts one, ten, fifty, or one-hundred future events. The more foresight you have, the better your understanding of every issue you encounter.

Conclusion
I am adding the phrase "cognitive time-horizon" to the Stationary Waves Lexicon for future reference. I am also creating a new blog post label for this term. In the future, I will make an effort to relate more and more issues to the concept of an extended, long-run horizon of analysis.