Pico-Economic Contractions: Get off my ass!!

in psychology •  4 months ago

I recently took a part-time job as a courier. I’ve become completely disaffected, or I think the better term would really be overly affected by our current economic system and my personal options within it, which consist of manual labour, Mc Jobs, or soul-crushing data entry.

This courier gig has been perfect for my matrix de-coupling trajectory. On the road, it gives me time to think, and time to listen to my new favorite podcast: The Joe Rogan Experience. While my Spinozist outlook already had me running for the hills in search of another way of life, Joe Rogan gave me the piece of the puzzle I was lacking. The bottom line is that my health was in the shitter, and listening to the variety of experts he’s lent his platform helped re-boot my system and now I’m back in black, I hit the sack? Never was too sure what that lyric was…

I’ve rejected the idea of having a “grown-up job” that is our current paradigm’s criterion for upstanding citizenship, and I’ll take whatever will provide me with enough peanuts to survive and maintain my little slice of sanity. So I now feel fortunate with all the Zen-like time I get behind the wheel, and trust me, there’s some high-quality Alpha, Gamma, and Theta waves revving in my noggin while my built Ford tough steed is revving down the highway, because Joe Rogan has got me Wim Hoff breathing every morning while I fill in the gap usually slotted for eggs and bacon, because fuck breaks, I just fast!

What has me constantly in awe is just how erratic and desperate the energy is pulsing through our country’s concrete veins. I honestly can’t wait for Elon Musk to get those self-driving cars on the road already, because unlike the harmoniously tranquil state I’ve been experiencing, most people are straight up losing their shit! “Batty” comes to mind as an apt description, and the closer you get to the heart of a major city, the battier it gets; like boy wonder in tights extremes, WHAM! Although it seems that 90% of cars are without a single passenger, the real story is that riding alongside these speedy city slickers are recursive loops of beta waves stuck in a never-ending rut of frantically searching for the novel strategy that’s going to shave 2 minutes off of their commute, because why else would the majority of vehicles be following the rat racer in front of them at a suicidal gap that’s pushing into camel toe territory? I mean deep down you’ve got to know that even Danica Patrick couldn’t escape a fiery death if the soccer mom ahead of her, terrified of being 10 minutes late once again and suffering the looks of judgmental disgust waiting on her co-worker’s faces, suddenly throws on the brakes.


There’s obviously something very wrong with a species when the majority of the population straight up ignores the basal directive of survival, I can’t really think of a comparison. Dogs chasing cars maybe? But they’re not exactly playing a game of chicken, and no lemmings don’t count either, crazy as it seems, that myth was put into circulation by Disney. It turns out the same company responsible for Cinderella sent quite a few of the furballs to their death for the sake of producing captivating entertainment.

No one disputes that we’re in the midst of a serious health crisis. The rising rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, etc., and the crazy fact that for the first time in a thousand years we might just witness a generation with a lower life expectancy than their parents, are all pretty easily explained; we are currently experiencing the most nutrient dense environment in our history, and it all comes in enticing packaging containing flavors that have been carefully manufactured by engineers armed with an evolutionary understanding of our biology to keep us coming back to the cupboard, just like a junkie getting a fix, because it essentially is the same thing, the same neurochemicals flooding our grey matter and the same willpower dissipating rationalizations that start out by saying “never again,” then slide into “well maybe a little,” and round third with “why am I naked in the spice aisle?” that any AA or NA member is familiar with. As far as our modern culinary culture goes, we’re hard-wired to fail.

George Ainslie has explained this all beautifully with his Pico-economics. We discount reward hyperbolically and prematurely satiate the appetite on the regular. In terms of cigarettes, and Doritos, this winds up with us receiving little joy from each additional puff, or bite, and yet we scarf down an entire bag, and your pack is up in smoke before lunch hour.

So all of the fatties we see around town are easily explained, but can Pico-economics really explain why the asshole behind me has to get within butt sniffing proximity, tailgating as if I just flipped him the bird? (Honestly it has to be the easiest way to escalate a situation, I bet that if Trump flipped Putin the bird, nukes would be flying faster than it took the social justice warriors to unsheathe their swords when they read the word “fatties” above.)

Evolution ingrained a tendency in our genetic makeup to spiral down pathways that deplete the joys of life, but the problem really ramps up in intensity when we regard shaving a few seconds off of a task a reward in itself. Recursive loops becoming shorter and shorter is not only a tendency, it’s now a categorical imperative! We’ve gotten too cool for school, and along with mind-bending pop culture and poststructuralist philosophy, we’ve all gone meta, and the contraction of the time to reward is valued aside from the actual primary reward itself, but this, in turn, makes the reward less rewarding by having it take a backseat to the efficacy of a schedule, or perhaps it wasn’t even rewarding at all in the old fashioned intrinsic sense, perhaps it was just a means to an end, as most things in our current capitalist culture are; a method to please the higher-ups, or the need to tick off a box on some goddamned HR form. But even if the reward gained at the end of the contracted temporal rainbow was highly valued at the beginning of the process, it necessarily becomes fleeting, not merely because of it’s now second fiddle status, but due to whatever type of pallet fatigue corresponds to the dopamine spike we’re currently chasing, along with the reward gained from the successful contraction of time itself losing it’s satisfying kick, because if the interval remains steady it’s going to become old hat, which pushes us to up the ante to search for a more accelerated route to squeeze more reward out of the spectacle of our own efficiency at arriving at the completely unfulfilling means at the end of the cycle.

The global rise of capitalist culture has us fixated to the point where we’re literally killing ourselves, not only in the humdrum sense of a stressful work environment where we’re buried in a stack of papers so vast that we don’t even have the time to organize them, let alone read and digest the time-sensitive information, but in the most catastrophically visceral sense of a high impact collision.

Ainslie’s solution for getting outside of Pico-economic ruts and moving closer to an exponential discount rate is two-fold. First is bundling; grouping together multiple rewards. Linking your desire to beat your previous plank record to your desire to provide for your family, or to see your grandkids graduate college, is going to even out the hyperbolic valleys, and steady your boat into a more exponential trajectory. Binding long-term universal values to immediate actions is a time-honored viable strategy for cultivating willpower, and recent studies support our deep-seated reverence for these sorts of principles.

The second strategy, the one that I think most characterizes people with an iron resolve, is to realize that your current action is going to be used by your future self to predict your ability to hold to your diet, and not have that cigarette, or next handful of Doritos. Anslie recasts the passage of subjectivity from the idea of a uniform identity moving through time into a picture of continual prisoner’s dilemmas that is constantly taking place between your past, current, and future selves. The only way to cultivate the will to resist caving to your immediate desire is the faith that your future selves will hold steadfast until the exponential point of maximal potential satisfaction is reached. Because believing that you’re going to cave in the next few minutes is going to lead to you caving now, because what’s a few minutes? But if you’ve never been able to even last a few minutes, how the hell are you going to get through an entire day, week, or month?

Unfortunately, the anxiety and frustration that is characteristic of road rage is the equivalent of having gone too far down the rabbit hole, because the way out doesn’t function the way it does with most of our foibles. In terms of diet, exercise, or manual labour, the old-time spirit of putting your nose to the grindstone is somewhat effective, or at least we can imagine it to be effective, that is, we can imagine it being effectively put into practice by our future selves, but the antidote to road rage is to effectively calm the fuck down, which doesn’t really seem amenable to willpower, or rather the ability to imagine your future willpower, because fantasy Steve isn’t calming the fuck down in the same way that fantasy Steve is putting Rocky to shame with pull-ups.

So even if you rationally realize the cascade of stressors that is causing the pile up in your monkey brain, placing faith in your future selves to remain calm is a pretty tough pill to swallow when you’re already in a stressed-out state of frustration and general freak out because the five cars in front of you are actually going the posted speed limit. So, what are you supposed to do? Telling someone to not freak out, who is actually freaking out, because their freaking out is going to wind up causing them to freak out even more in a later freak out session, is akin to telling someone to not think of a purple elephant, or telling someone who is high, to not act high — “But I AM high.” — The latter is a better metaphor really, because if the habit of tailgating is caused by a frustration stemming from a contracted subjective measurement of reward, which in turn correlates to your brain emitting a beta wave function, which corresponds to higher incidences of cortisol and adrenaline; You’re high on strife baby!


Okay so, obviously I have some point, and I’m not taking you towards a soap opera type cliffhanger, which is unveiled as being irrelevant at the beginning of the next episode of irrelevance with another promising cliffhanger, only… recursion is tiring, isn’t it? Honestly, I’m having a problem of how to bridge the gap from my little anxiety-ridden picture to a serene walk in the park with a Buddhist monk. I guess, in a way, it’s illustrative of how hard it is to make the jump from a ramped-up fight or flight situation to one where your only concern is when your buddy is going to pass the Cheetos.

To become good at anything requires practice, and the only way you’re going to have enough faith in your future self achieving a sense of calm and inner peace when that punk kid, blasting whatever it is that you definitely don’t recognize as music, cuts you off, and maybe even has the audacity to flip you the bird — SEND IN THE NUKES! — is if you have been able to enter that state of peace and calm in the past. If you get up in the morning slam back 2 Monster energy drinks, or 4 cups of chocolaty Arabica coffee, and turn on the news to hear all of the terrible atrocities that are happening RIGHT NOW, before you hop in your car and navigate a sea of rush hour traffic to get to your super stressful job and the deadlines that you can’t make, how are you going to believe it at all possible for you to achieve a sense of serenity when all you can recall is the constant state of psychic hyperventilation that has brought you to the point of a “total freak out”? (Imagine it said in Valley Girl for full effect.)

Currently, a lot of our cultural norms are being outed as complete garbage by scientific professionals utilizing what we know about lifestyle habits in societies that mimic our shared evolutionary history. Along with drastically different diets, and exercise habits, hunter-gatherers also enjoy a shit ton of leisure time. It all ended for our ancestors with the advent of agriculture, and judging by their cringe like bone structure, it wasn’t good times. So now that we are beginning to understand just what the dangers are in deviating from that evolutionary blueprint, do you really think it’s healthy to move from days that included a couple of hours of vigorous exercise, and then a copious dose of sitting back and watching the grass grow, to this cacophony of information and constant juggling of tasks that should have been done yesterday?


Do yourself a favor, if you aren’t already, start meditating. The tranquility that once accounted for 80% of our mental diet, is now almost completely absent from our society. To be able to achieve this state amongst all of the madness is a skill, and it’s an essential skill. In the same way that you have to search for foods that aren’t processed (although thankfully it’s becoming easier), and you have to drive to the gym to make sure you get exercise, you need to make time to do nothing, because if you don’t take the time to escape your obsessing over time, you might not have any time left. Cue the after school special finale: Crash! “Oh, the humanity!”

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