The Personal MBA

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What Is 'Cognitive Scope Limitation'?

Cognitive Scope Limitation is the way the human mind tends to simplify reality when it becomes too overwhelming for the mind. This is what happens when you walk on Times Square: you can't possibly feel emotionally connected to so many strangers.

It's not possible to expand the scope of information in our minds, we just can't handle so much reality.

Personalizing an issue is the best way to overcome this limitation. It helps to personalize decisions by imagining they affect someone close to us. What if your (present, distant, or metaphorical) grandchild evaluated the results of your decision? What if it appeared on the front page of the newspaper?

Josh Kaufman Explains 'Cognitive Scope Limitation'

If you ever have a chance to walk through the middle of Times Square in New York City during tourist season, you'll quickly realize that, to most of the people moving toward you, you are not a person.

Instead of being a human being, you are an object-an obstacle standing between where they are and where they want to go. As a result, they'll run you over with impunity.

No matter how intelligent a person is, there's an upper bound on the amount of information a single mind can process, store, and respond to. Above that limit, information may be stored in abstract terms, but it's processed differently than information related to that individual's personal experience or concerns.

"Dunbar's Number" is a theoretical cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships humans can maintain at one time. According to Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, humans have the cognitive capacity to keep track of somewhere around 150 close personal connections.

Beyond this limited circle, we start treating people less like individuals and more like objects, and groups of people beyond this limit are likely to splinter off into subgroups over time.

If you've ever wondered why you don't write letters to your elementary school classmates, Dunbar's Number is a decent hypothesis-you're too busy maintaining your ties to people who are in your immediate social circle.

There's some controversy regarding the actual quantity of connections where Cognitive Scope Limitation kicks in (the "Bernard-Killworth Median," a competing estimate, is 290), but there's little doubt that such a limit exists.

When a disaster strikes somewhere around the world that affects millions of people, we may feel bad, but we don't feel a million times what we would feel if that disaster directly affected a close friend or family member. The more remote the connection, the less such an impact affects us individually.

The tourists in Times Square aren't evil-they're just overwhelmed. Over 364,000 people pass through Times Square every day, and our minds simply aren't capable of handling that much information at once. Abstractly, these people still realize that you're a human being, but there's so much going on in the area that it's difficult to treat you like one. The mind gets overwhelmed, so it starts simplifying reality to compensate.

The same thing happens to executives of large companies.

Rationally, they may be aware that they're responsible for hundreds of thousands of employees and millions of shareholders, but no matter how intelligent they are, their brains simply aren't capable of processing the magnitude of that reality. As a result, executives can hurt a lot of people without even realizing it.

The CEO of a large company may not particularly care if thousands of front-line workers are laid off-after all, they may not know any front-line workers personally.

Whenever you see an executive making a boneheaded decision like dumping toxic waste into a river millions of people drink from, or downsizing thousands of jobs while handing out millions of dollars in bonuses, it's probably not because they're rotten to the core. As scary as it sounds, it's probably because they simply haven't thought too much about it-the scope and scale of what they're managing is too complex to handle, so their mind processes the decision abstractly instead of viscerally.

Personalizing an issue is a way to hack this universal limitation. In the absence of brain upgrades, it's not possible to directly expand the scope of information our minds are capable of processing. In order to get around this limitation, it's often useful to personalize decisions and issues by imagining they affect someone close to us.

In the case of the boneheaded executive, they'd feel very different about their decision if their mother's water was polluted, or their child's job was downsized. Instead of abstractly considering the issue, personalizing it makes it easier to feel the effects of the decision viscerally, which makes it easier to make better decisions.

In Green to Gold, Daniel Etsy and Andrew Wilson describe several ways of making it easier to internalize the results of large decisions. The "newspaper rule" and "grandchild rule" are effective ways of personalizing the results of your decisions.

The "newspaper rule" is a simulation of the following: assume your decision was publicized on the front page of tomorrow's New York Times, and your parents and/or significant other read it. What would they think? Imagining the personal consequences of your decisions in this way is a much more accurate way to evaluate the impact of short-term decisions.

The "grandchild rule" is a way of evaluating decisions with long-term consequences. Imagine that, thirty or forty years from now, your grandchild gives you feedback on the results of your decision. Will they laud you for your wisdom, or reprimand you for your stupidity?

Personalize the results of your decisions and actions, and you'll be far less likely to run afoul of Cognitive Scope Limitation.

Questions About 'Cognitive Scope Limitation'

"One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic."

Kurt Tucholsky, German satirist

From Chapter 6:

The Human Mind

The Personal MBA

Master the Art of Business

A world-class business education in a single volume. Learn the universal principles behind every successful business, then use these ideas to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your life and work.

Buy the book:

About Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is an acclaimed business, learning, and skill acquisition expert. He is the author of two international bestsellers: The Personal MBA and The First 20 Hours. Josh's research and writing have helped millions of people worldwide learn the fundamentals of modern business.

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