MENTAL OVERLOAD

What do we mean by mental overload?


We all have finite mental reserves, or cognitive resources. Everything we attend to uses up some of our reserves, so we often have to selectively focus our attention. This means that we tend to prefer simple, clear, and convenient information and tasks. We may procrastinate, miss vital information, or give up on tasks if they are complex, dense, or inconvenient. This also means that when resources such as time or money are limited, we feel compelled to focus on urgent problems. Experiencing mental overload makes us more likely to default to what is easy, familiar, or brings us comfort, even when those things don’t align with our goals and values.

 

The effects of mental overload may show up in surprising ways: People may miss an appointment or submit an incomplete application even if it is for renewing services they value; people may get stuck on questionnaires even when questions do not directly ask about finances. They may also find it difficult to even consider long-term decisions like moving into a new home or enrolling in educational programs if they are overwhelmed by daily stressors.

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Surprising Fact!

Researchers studying how people make decisions in financially limited circumstances found that the cognitive impact of poverty is comparable with losing a full night of sleep.

How can mental overload affect health equity?

When we have a lot going on, whether it is sudden sickness in the family or a move to a new place, it can be stressful and hard for us to focus. In contrast, everyday occasions like a birthday party, a missed bus, or a hangout with friends do not tend to be big stressors. But for people experiencing poverty, even everyday occasions like these can trigger financial concerns that are mentally taxing and persistent. In addition to financial concerns, people experiencing poverty constantly have to deal with being stereotyped and stigmatized. Even when not directly dealing with these situations, they may worry about these situations coming up, requiring them to exert extra mental effort to regulate negative thoughts and emotions. These mental burdens can also affect others experiencing stigma based on their race, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or health status (e.g., HIV, mental illness). 
 
These often invisible mental burdens make it harder to make the kinds of health decisions most of us desire to make – to eat better, get more exercise, seek preventive care, get more regular sleep, and look after our mental health. The extra mental load of poverty and discrimination adds to the structural barriers to health equity that many people face. By recognizing the mental burdens that affect people, we can better understand the choices they sometimes make, and design services that minimize the additional mental effort required. 

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Actionable Example

WHAT OTHERS HAVE DONE

Making applications simpler and more accessible

In Washington, an affordable housing organization simplified their application process. The staff noticed that the old paperwork-intensive process resulted in many incomplete applications due to client confusion and mailing delays. So they worked with a software company to make the application an easy-to-use online app instead. The application can now be completed on computers and even the clients’ phones. Clients can work on the application anywhere, anytime, and with the help of family who do not live nearby. Clients also don’t have to worry about the time and money that would have been spent on printing, faxing, mailing, and traveling to the housing office. Staff, too, can now devote more energy to meaningful conversations with clients.

Image by Kelly Sikkema
Bibliography

Psychological Responses to Scarcity

An academic paper on how scarcity consumes cognitive resources. From the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. 

 

Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function (referenced above in the surprising fact)

A landmark study that prompted further examination of how poverty may affect cognition. From the peer-reviewed academic journal Science.

 

Money in the Mental Lives of the Poor (Related lay article: How poverty changes your mind-set

An academic paper on how even everyday experiences that appear non-financial can be associated with financial concerns for people experiencing poverty. From the peer-reviewed academic journal Social Cognition.

 

A Meta-analytic Cognitive Framework of Nudge and Sludge 

An academic review on intervention designs that facilitate or inhibit actions and how they relate to cognitive processes. From PsyArXiv Preprints. 

 

Active Choosing or Default Rules? The Policymaker's Dilemma 

A paper on whether asking people to make active choices or giving people default options are more appropriate. From the peer-reviewed journal Behavioral Science & Policy.

Acknowledgements

Dr. Jiaying Zhao
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia; Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Sustainability


Dr. Gilberto Lopez
Assistant Professor, School of Transborder Studies, Arizona State University


Wendy Westby
Director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, Everett Housing Authority


Vanessa Figueroa
Housing Choice Voucher Manager & Project Based Voucher Program Administrator, Everett Housing Authority

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Support for this project was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.