lowering the biocost of everyday life

Paying Attention

Download the published paper from 2010, "Bio-cost: An Economics of Human Behavior" from this link.

Measuring the Biocost of Human Actions

[The following informal piece was written in response to requests to expand the concept of 'biocost', a term coined by Michael C. Geoghegan in conversation with Paul Pangaro and CJ Maupin in order to reference the non-monetary expenditures by human beings while engaging in any activity. The concept arose from focus on the limits of what is and is not possible in any organization, part of a long-term collaboration, see Related Links below. Since this write-up from 2004, the concept has been extended and made more rigorous, specifically in regard to design of products and services.]

In addition to the obvious physical resources required by an organization to achieve a given goal (money, facilities, equipment), so-called ‘human resources’ are a critical and irreplaceable component. Such resources, however, are generally viewed from the perspective of the organization: how many employees, with what skillsets, in what positions. We wanted to view the resource cost from the perspective of individual persons, in terms of fundamental physical and biological limits, which led us to the points that follow.

Consider biocost as a measure of the human expenditure required to achieve a goal. There are components of biocost that are easily measurable – the literal physical energy, the time, and the relative degree of attention that a specific goal requires. Another key human component – the emotional or stress component – is more difficult to characterize and measure, and is somewhat a function of the perceived demands of energy, time, and attention for a given goal or sub-task.

Informally, then, biocost is the energy, time, attention, and concomitant stress associated with a given human activity that is focused to achieve a given goal. The goal component is important, because the perceived effort versus the perceived benefit plays into stress. Although we are seeking a hard-valued measurement, we recognize that there are many variables incorporating subjective judgments that affect the specific measurements of biocost.

While not yet a formal or rigorous concept, biocost has ‘caught on’ whenever we have used it in conversation or writings about human activities and human social systems. Here follow some notes that capture aspects of biocost, without any pretense to completeness or rigor.


A few examples of biocost

- Various ways of quenching your thirst

I can walk to the nearest sink and draw a glass of water. I can go a further distance to the refrigerator, in order to get something cold or more nutritional. I can go out to a local bar and have champagne. Each method to achieve the goal of thirst-quenching involves a distinctly different amount of energy, time, attention, and (therefore) stress. It is a personal choice to consider the trade-offs and to act so as to balance biocost with value of the goal to me, along with related aspects (is a beer better than water? is a walk a nice thing to have on its own? etc.).

- How collaboration can lower or raise biocost

I can ask my partner to get me a glass of water, or to go to the local wine shop to get me champagne. In deciding what to ask, I can balance the overall benefit to me versus (my perception of) the bio-cost to my partner, versus the biocost to me (in the form of stress) of asking for something that interferes with my partner’s own schedule, or that I may know my partner does not approve of.

- Biogain vs. biocost

Biocost has an inverse, that of biogain. The fact that my partner is willing to do a favor and supports me will not only lower the biocost I expend, but may replenish my available bioenergy by nourishing my needs. (The effect of such acts of kindness and other aspects of relationships on the endocrine system have been documented.)

Consider the biocost equation when a thousand persons all brave the weather and traffic to travel to a concert. That bioexpenditure can be substantial, in addition to the monetary cost of tickets and travel, to experience a solo pianist playing classical music. Repeat attendance by an individual concertgoer attests to the net gain of bioenergy as judged by the individual. On the other hand, what is the biocost versus biogain of the performer?

- Organizational Change

Changing organizations takes time and careful processes. One fundamental limit on the rate of organizational change is the biocost of change to the individual. See Related Links [2] below.

- Applications of biocost

We’ve found that the memes of biocost and biogain are quickly picked up, even after a single exposure in casual conversation. It becomes easy to cast relationships, proposals, and activities in light of the plus/minus consequences to individual biocost. In addition, it is tempting to make the concept more rigorous in an effort to compare different possible means to solve problems. For example, could two strategies for organizational change be compared for their relative biocost to the employees?

Similarly, could two possible web site designs be compared for ease of use as measured by biocost? Take the example of wanting to decide whether to purchase a digital camera, and, if so, which specific camera to buy, and at what price and from what online merchant? Biocost metrics could be valuable here.


Biocost Components – Energy, Time, Attention, Stress

1. Energy – the literal, physical expenditure of effort or work by the human. Some unit of energy is appropriate here, perhaps calories per unit time, or watts. Humans are said to expend about 100 watts per hour at rest (this from memory, can easily be checked). Strenuous activity requires more and, though there is surely a variation based on degree of mental load, these variations are small in overall impact compared to the other components.

2. Time – the amount of time it takes to fulfill a task or goal. Surely it is a simply matter to estimate, track, evaluate, and consider ways to minimize the time that tasks take. The clock, with its seconds and minutes and hours, are appropriate means of measure here.

3. Attention – the degree to which other tasks may be performed simultaneously, or nearly in parallel, to the task or goal in question. Some tasks are so complex or critical or dangerous as to require complete, 100% attention, such as landing an airplane or swerving to avoid an oncoming car. Others, such as talking on the phone or eating a meal, allow sharing of attention. Using a mobile phone while driving is an infamous case where sharing attention across tasks can be dangerous. Percentage of attention required, between 0 and 100, seems a logical unit.

4. Stress – the impact of the energy, time, and attention required to achieve a given goal, in the context of the benefits and consequences (dangers) of not achieving the goal. Short of some normalized electro-chemical measure (at best invasive and at worst impossible to obtain), the closest alternative we’ve considered is not a unit of absolute stress, but instead the ability to indicate a rank ordering among the alternative means to achieving a goal, in a range from minimum and maximum stress. While recognizing that this is highly subjective and variable for even a single person (different ‘states of mind’ would cause different rankings, for example), it is valuable to be able to choose an alternative based on lower biocost.


Related Links

[1] For further collaborations, see Notes on the Role of Leadership and Language in Regenerating Organizations, a distilled and rigorous piece on the role of language in defining organizational capacities and enabling change.

[2] Design for a Self-Generating Organization contains a more technical review of limitations of organizational change, three classes of change, and mechanisms for change.

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Cybernetic Lifestyles (c) CJ Maupin & Paul Pangaro 2005-2007. All Rights Reserved.