An economic theory of mental burden will have to grapple with the fact that:

  1. unlike money, it’s something we want to minimize, not maximize, and
  2. it’s not a zero-sum game with a finite resource.

If I delegate a task to you, say, it’s not as though I’m unloading the same amount of mental burden that you’re gaining. Maybe you’re an expert at the task and will have the schemas you need for automatic processing, making your mental burden smaller than mine would have been. Maybe I’d increase both of our mental burdens by hovering and micromanaging.

As instructional design has shown, poor design can increase cognitive load for whole groups of learners. Policy makers wield a lot of power in the mental burden economy: they can design policies that reduce or increase mental burden for many people at once.

That’s why, from a mental burden perspective especially, the election of Donald Trump in the US is so insidious. He won’t do much to decrease the mental burden of the white working class that voted for him but has already dramatically increased the mental burden of everyone else—visible minorities, women, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, and so on. Estimates that Trump’s policies could cost the US economy $1 trillion are mostly based on the stifling effects of restricting trade, deporting immigrant labour, and giving tax cuts to the wealthy and probably don’t even account for the inevitable decrease in innovation because people now have the added mental burden from fear of persecution, not to mention having to worry about losing the safety net that provides them with their basic necessities for life and safety.

Many citizens are now also having to devote quite a bit of their mental energy to actively opposing Trump or repairing the damage he causes (which, presumably, wasn’t on their agenda before). This diversion of energy from what could otherwise be channelled toward innovation will hurt productivity—and ultimately the economy—even more.