Cyclical Population Dynamics of Automatic Versus Controlled Processing: An Evolutionary Pendulum

Forthcoming in Psychological Review

29 Pages Posted: 24 May 2017

See all articles by David G. Rand

David G. Rand

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Damon Tomlin

University of Colorado, Colorado Springs - Psychology

Adam Bear

Yale University

Elliot Ludvig

University of Warwick

Jonathan D. Cohen

Princeton University - Department of Psychology

Date Written: May 22, 2017

Abstract

Psychologists, neuroscientists, and economists often conceptualize decisions as arising from processes that lie along a continuum from automatic (i.e., “hardwired” or over-learned, but relatively inflexible) to controlled (less efficient and effortful, but more flexible). Control is central to human cognition, and plays a key role in our ability to modify the world to suit our needs. Given its advantages, reliance on controlled processing may seem predestined to increase within the population over time. Here, we examine whether this is so by introducing an evolutionary game theoretic model of agents that vary in their use of automatic versus controlled processes, and in which cognitive processing modifies the environment in which the agents interact. We find that, under a wide range of parameters and model assumptions, cycles emerge in which the prevalence of each type of processing in the population oscillates between two extremes. Rather than inexorably increasing, the emergence of control often creates conditions that lead to its own demise by allowing automaticity to also flourish, thereby undermining the progress made by the initial emergence of controlled processing. We speculate that this observation may have relevance for understanding similar cycles across human history, and may lend insight into some of the circumstances and challenges currently faced by our species.

Keywords: cognitive processing, cognitive control, automaticity, evolution, game theory, mathematical modeling, cyclicity

Suggested Citation

Rand, David G. and Tomlin, Damon and Bear, Adam and Ludvig, Elliot and Cohen, Jonathan D., Cyclical Population Dynamics of Automatic Versus Controlled Processing: An Evolutionary Pendulum (May 22, 2017). Forthcoming in Psychological Review . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2972420

David G. Rand (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.daverand.org

Damon Tomlin

University of Colorado, Colorado Springs - Psychology ( email )

United States

Adam Bear

Yale University ( email )

2 Hillhouse Ave
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

HOME PAGE: http://campuspress.yale.edu/adambear/

Elliot Ludvig

University of Warwick ( email )

Gibbet Hill Rd.
Coventry, West Midlands CV4 8UW
United Kingdom

Jonathan D. Cohen

Princeton University - Department of Psychology ( email )

Green Hall
Princeton, NJ 08540
United States

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