The Effect of Cognitive Load on Economic Decision Making

A Survey and New Experiments

Published in: European Economic Review, v. 78, Aug. 2015, p. 97-119

Posted on RAND.org on March 17, 2016

by Cary Deck, Salar Jahedi

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Psychologists and economists have examined the effect of cognitive load in a variety of situations from risk taking to snack choice. We review previous experiments that have directly manipulated cognitive load and summarize their findings. We report the results of two new experiments where participants engage in a digit-memorization task while simultaneously performing a variety of economic tasks including: (1) choices involving risk, (2) choices involving intertemporal substitution, (3) choices with anchoring effects, (4) choices over healthy and unhealthy snacks, and (5) math problems. We find that higher cognitive load reduces numeracy as measured by performance in math problems. Moreover, within-subject analysis indicates that cognitive load leads to more risk-averse behavior, more impatience over money, and (nominally) more likelihood to anchor. We do not find any evidence that cognitive load increases impatience over consumption goods or unhealthy snack choices. Exploiting the panel nature of our data set, we find that those individuals who are most sensitive to cognitive load, as measured by a large drop in their own math performance across 1- and 8-digit memorization treatments, are driving much of the effect.

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