A route to personal freedom

Through experience, we simplify our thinking and behaviour into chosen paths.  But it is worth questioning those paths sometimes, and exploring new behaviours. Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

Cognitive economy is a concept familiar to many psychologists.  Roughly speaking, it is the way our minds limit our focus in order to think and act efficiently and effectively.  Put more simply, you don’t want to be solving the problems of the world while you are balancing on a tightrope.  Your focus, for the time being, is walking the tightrope, and the problems of the world will have to wait.


Simplifying our thinking and action has several benefits in terms of survival.

  1. It makes us decisive, in situations where to vacillate may be counterproductive
  2. It keep us healthy, in situations where complexity might otherwise give us cognitive overload
  3. It helps us communicate with others in easy-to-understand terms

One problem with such simplification, though, is that it is only true partially and temporarily.  If we rely on our simplifications as rules, then, sooner or later, something will happen to throw our minds off balance.  Our normal rules, on which we are basing our behaviour, will become redundant, and we will feel lost, as so much of our behaviour has depended on instructional simplicity.


Jane grew up with a father who got angry at the least provocation.  To get by, she simplified her thinking and behaviour into a 3-part system:

  1. Look around me to see if anyone is angry
  2. If they are, then do what is necessary to make them happy
  3. If they cannot be made happy, then exit the premises quickly
In terms of cognitive economy, when Jane was a child, this worked.  It got her through most family situations, since most family situations were dominated by her father’s angry moods.

However, when she became an adult, Jane found herself interacting with people who were quite bewildered with her behaviour.  The context had changed.  Sometimes, for instance, someone would want to get close to her.  Unfortunately, her simplified approach to life did not include opening up to them.  Instead, she would spend her time checking that they were happy.  This was great in itself, but it did not allow for any growth in intimacy, since intimacy relies on sharing inner thoughts, and sharing inner thoughts was something that Jane had learned not to do.  It was dangerous in her original childhood situation, so she had learned to keep her thoughts to herself.

In this example, Jane achieved a cognitive economy in her childhood, but the simplified rules did not equip her for more complex situations in adulthood.  In fact, it inhibited her adult intimacy, because her focus was restricted to a simple rule: ‘I must not make people unhappy’.


We all have such cognitive simplifications.  They are the deals we have made with life to make it bearable and live-able.  I chose the above example because it is a very common one.  Time after time, domineering parents, especially those with a problem controlling their anger, or their alcohol intake, influence their children’s rules of behaviour.  Their offspring grow up obsessed with keeping others happy, anxiously watchful, unable to say what they really want, or to ask it from others.


If you are a victim of your own cognitive economy, what can you do about it?  Well, the trick is to find a safe way to review your own mental assumptions and behavioural rules, and then to quietly question them, and perhaps try out new ways of thinking and behaving.  For example, Jane might choose a friendship she feels she can trust, and then set about teaching herself to open up more.  She can even share with the other that she finds this a problem.  In the early days she will feel very vulnerable, because she is going against the assumptions of her own cognitive economy, which have kept her safe all these years.  But, gradually, if she is lucky, she may learn that opening up brings its own benefits.


Review your own life, and see what rules you seem to operate by.  Notice areas where you seem to frustrate your own wishes, and inhibit your own growth.  Then reflect on why you might be like that – what unconscious rules you might be operating by.  Try to identify the rule or rules.  They might be something like:

  1. I must avoid upsetting others at all costs
  2. I must never leave anything half-finished
  3. Resting is lazy
  4. I must always be productive (in some way that is never quite explained to yourself!)
  5. I must never ask clearly for what I want
  6. I must never risk rejection
Try to remember situations in your past where these rules were relevant in their simplicity.  Now think of your present life, and how some of these rules actually stop you from living fully.  Then pick one example, and start to explore breaking that rule.  What would that mean?  Could you cope?  What growth might it bring for you?  What rewards, even?



We all have minds that simplify our life into basic rules.  But some of these rules aren’t applicable any more: we made them in childhood, and need to grow out of them to live fully.  Try to notice where your long-established behaviour is constantly getting in the way of a full life.  What unconscious rules are you operating by?  Maybe you could challenge those rules.  They may not apply now.  You may deserve a bit more freedom.