Decisions become remarkably harder and less competent with each succeeding decision.
Two societal implications are that 1) accepting or declining economic transactions is costlier than we think and 2) electing numerous officials curtails democracy.
Ignored transaction costs
The housing mortgage crisis exemplifies the first implication: commentary has failed to take account of the toll imposed on people who want to buy homes, when pseudo-opportunity taxes their willpower. The structure of “opportunity” is central here: an open offer from varied offerors isn’t subject to once-and-for-all decisive rejection. Instead, a potential borrower may have to wrestle with impulse for months, so that finally accepting a loan becomes a desperate response to the constant drain on scarce willpower.
The harm never considered is how much willpower is drained from those who refrained from borrowing, who successfully resisted the impulse to take a home loan; how the drain on their willpower paralyzed them in making other decisions—having been forced to squander their willpower on resisting loans that should never have been offered. Willpower is a scarce resource, and it is far more costly than almost anyone realizes. It’s the great hidden societal cost of market transactions. And while researchers assume willpower is replenished with a night’s sleep and breakfast, I suspect that longer frames also operate—this is the reason we need weekends and vacations.
The faux-democratic proliferation of electoral events
Like proliferating consumer “choices” that kill happiness and productivity while seeming to enhance them, the proliferation of elections has an analogous paradoxical effect on democracy. Since every choice offered diminishes our ability to make choices, elections for judges and dogcatchers or for the multiple offices required under the U.S. federal system weaken democracy by detracting from the effort citizens devote to any electoral contest.
Although dramatically reforming the American political structure is neither feasible nor high priority, it is well to have a vision of what kind of structure is or isn’t effectively democratic. Ego-depletion theory tells us that the fewer offices for which a citizen votes the better, but construal-level theory offers additional standards. It proposes that
“Seeing the forest” and “seeing the trees” involve integrated mental sets, dubbed far-mode and near-mode because distance of time, place, and person makes us think in terms of forests and nearness in these respects makes us think in terms of trees.
Outcomes will depend on whether the decision is construed in far-mode or near-mode. The theory might be invoked to support a system of checks and balances like the U.S. system, where elections staged at different intervals and over different-sized constituencies induce varying construal levels. At the federal level, elections to the House of Representatives are relatively near-mode, due both to small districts and frequent elections, and presidential elections may be most far-mode, although Senate terms are longer. Near-mode fosters resistance to change, so it is theoretically consistent with construal-level theory that the House has taken so strongly to saying no.
But if the system succeeds in eliciting different construal levels in different government branches, this has come to seem a defect rather than merit. If government is to deal in broad purposes, far-mode should dominate in formulating policies. If policies are to be implemented intelligently, near-mode should dominate in their local application. How to square this with ego-depletion theory’s moral that the number of contests in which any citizen votes be limited, preferably to a single office? One way to try to accomplish this might be a unicameral parliament with local bureaucracies appointed top down, but this produces an effect opposite to the intended. Appointments to distant career posts are based on far-mode processes, unlikely to lead to effective near-mode reasoning by the appointees.
Another little used but in-theory effective means of unifying local government with national government could better secure the appropriate allocation of near and far cognition: indirect election of progressively higher levels of government by local bodies, so the choices are minimized and each delegation is progressively more far-mode. It may be objected that this was part of the defunct scheme originally adopted under the U.S. Constitution, which provided that local government bodies elect U.S. Senators and delegates to the electoral college, but the U.S. Constitutional scheme insubordinated local power to national by limiting the power of the federal government, whereas in the (unitary rather than federal) system here envisioned, the higher levels dominate the lower despite being selected by them, to subordinate near-mode to far-mode while economizing human willpower.