Cognitive Bias and the Future of Mankind
Baseball great Yogi Berra died a year ago amongst fanfare from fans who remember him as an American legend who could mangle language and abuse logic in an entertaining way. Folks, you have it all wrong. Berra might have mixed up his words once in a while, but overall Yogi was a genius, light years ahead of most of us in his thinking and ironically, his passing comes at a critical time in human evolution.
First, here are a few critical facts about the human brain. As great as it is — or we think it is — the brain is limited. It has a sensory system that works on contrast. As a result, it has developed an over-simplified way of seeing the world. The oversimplification is best manifested in what is described as the binary brain; we see things as either/or alternatives, a very simplistic way of perceiving an incredibly complex world. As the British statistician George Box said about theoretical models of the world, “Essentially all models are wrong, some are useful.” Similarly, I would argue that all perceptions are wrong, but some are useful.
Our way of simplifying a complex world has worked well for Homo Sapiens when battling cockroaches, aardvarks (who having been around for 23 million years can tell us a thing or two about adaptation), and other rivals for control of the planet. But it is not going to work at all when Man faces his biggest predator — himself. We are going to have to get more Sapiens. Very interesting, Howard, but what’s this got to do with a certain catcher for the New York Yankees?
“Baseball is 90 per cent mental and the other half is physical,” Yogi apparently said. If you think that is illogical, the laugh is on you. It is only illogical if mental and physical factors are mutually exclusive, which they aren’t. If some mental factors influence physical performance, which they do, then it is perfectly rational to argue that playing the game is 90% psychological and 50% physical. It sounds absurd because our brains automatically go into simplistic, binary mode when reality is way more complex.
“I usually take a two-hour nap from one to four,” said Yogi. Our simplistic brains quickly calculate that there are three hours from one to four and mistakenly conclude that Yogi is irrational. But he isn’t. What would be irrational is if Yogi said “I normally take a three hour nap from two to four.”
The point is that our brains simplify perception in such a way that it seriously constrains our thinking, especially about complex issues. The brain is a story-telling machine driven by emotion, not a truth-seeking one. It wants to quickly reach a simple conclusion and move on. The problem is that it is not just a simple conclusion, it’s a biased simple conclusion and one that is driven by emotional need and consistency, not complex reasoning. Read Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant Thinking, Fast and Slow for an overview and explanation of the cognitive science research, which shows that our own filters, based on our experiences, shape perceptions and emotions and easily overwhelm logic, most of the time. For many situations this “fast and frugal” intuitive analysis works adequately and bypasses unnecessarily complicated — and time consuming — rational analysis. However, it has allowed us to get by without resorting to logic. Kahenman shows convincingly that we have to work very hard at being rational and unless you are a scientist or data analyst the chances are you have never been trained in the finer points of logical analysis and reasoning. In short, although we have the ability to reason, the vast majority of us are not fully trained in developing rational skills. Most of the time we use this skill to rationalize rather than reason.
I have the privilege of working with Grant Renier at Intuitor (www.intuitorinc.com). Grant and his colleagues have devised predictive technology not based on logic but the way the biased brain really thinks, allowing it to more accurately predict anything from financial markets to sports, from consumer choices to health behavior. We have the capability of looking at data sets that go back 25 years with and without individual cognitive biases built into the predictive technology. The preliminary research suggests that over that time, cognitive bias is associated with greater predictive accuracy suggesting that over the last quarter of a century we may have become more “fast and frugal” and less attentive to more complex rational analysis. This would hardly be surprising given the amount of information that people now process daily and the time available for serious logical thinking.
So, at the same time that a few really smart people are getting beyond the brain’s limitations, the rest of us seem to be more than ever prey to them. That might be due to the information overload and time constraints mentioned above and partly because as a group we have learned how to communicate by manipulating cognitive bias. The fact is that our simplistic brains, the cognitive biases that are generated by them and the fast and frugal thinking that follow, are reinforced every day by the endless stream of illogical manipulation directed at them. As H.G. Wells said, “advertising is legalized lying.” Well, at the very least, marketers and anyone else who has learned about “communication” knows how to manipulate the binary brain and cognitive bias — and it’s not by logic.
Here’s a cure for whatever: it’s been used for three hundred years, this gorgeous celebrity uses it, it comes from deep in the Amazon and these three people all attest that it worked for them. Of course, none of those things has any relevance whatsoever to its value as a remedy. (Even if the three people were genuine they would not constitute evidence of benefit because, amongst other things, three people is way too small a group to prove anything. Sample size is a huge issue in understanding and analyzing data.) It isn’t just marketers who communicate like that — most of us do the same thing, all the time, although perhaps with less manipulative intent. However, we often appeal to emotion and irrelevant facts to support our “fast and frugal” narratives. And we think we’re being perfectly logical.
So, for a variety of reasons, which include technology, activism, political correctness and educational practice, the ability to see the limitations of the binary brain and cognitive bias might be getting worse. In the era of the selfie, is objectivity getting a downgrade?
Various forces conspire to promote the myth that perception is reality. There are many pop psychology myths and this is one of the biggest and most dangerous. Perception is your reality but not the reality. Moreover, people confuse rights with being right. You can stand on a street corner and shout as loud as you like, you can write books, march through towns, do whatever, proclaiming that 2+2=7, but you’re still wrong. This tendency has only been encouraged by a political correctness that de-emphasizes, even demonizes, facts and logic in favor of faux respect. The PC rules of engagement threaten to cripple authenticity and objectivity, both of which are necessary if you are going to approach any problem intelligently.
So, at a time when technology is changing the world at an incredible speed, we really have to learn how not just think outside the box but get rid of the box altogether. Creativity and innovation have increasingly been the name of the game as technology has gathered apace. The people who can see beyond the simplistic binary brain, can override fast and frugal thinking and don’t let preconceived notions and emotions influence them, are the stars of industry. They are also the ones who potentially are going to save the world. Some of them are so good at separating the emotional from the rational that we have even given them an official psychiatric diagnosis: Asperger’s Syndrome (for those who don’t know what that is think of Captain Spock of Star Trek fame).
As the sage Yogi Berra rightly predicted, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” How prophetic. The future is now an incredibly dangerous place filled with weapons that can wipe out entire nations, if not destroy the planet entirely, and people intent on using them. In the long term, the future of humanity might very well depend on the human brain evolving beyond cognitive biases and limited simplistic, emotion-driven, fast and frugal thinking.
At this point you might be thinking something to the effect that “this guy might be smart but he must be a bore at a party. Sounds like he needs a few shots of tequila to lighten up.” Don’t let the binary brain cloud your thinking. I am not saying we should always be logical and stifle all our emotions. Of course not, I’m a writer for heavens sake. And I don’t just write about neuroscience and cognition, I write inspirational memoirs and even have been approached to turn some of them into screenplays. I cry at movies, have done stand-up comedy and am empathetic to a fault. And I have made some really, really dumb decisions in my life. When I go to the movies I want to laugh and cry and I want to feel passion and emotion every day. However, when I have to make decisions, especially important ones, I need to get into rational mode using the specific skills needed for logical analysis, recognize the distorting influence of emotions and be sure I am not falling prey to the common biases that are implicit in the way we see the world.
In their book Sleights of Mind neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, relate their experience studying the practice of magic and confirm that illusions simply hijack the natural biases of the brain to deceive us. For example, if you are shown three black cards and one red one very quickly, the brain is automatically drawn to the red one — there’s the contrast effect again. As long as it is shown very quickly and you don’t have time to consider the cards, the red card is the one most people will automatically look at and remember. Magicians simply utilize the brain’s normal biases to create illusions. Sleights of Mind is testimony to the fact that we are very prone to deception. However, illusions can be dangerous. The truth is that we just need to get smarter. In another blog I outline five approaches that could lead to more rational thinking.
Technology experts who work in AI and know a heck of a lot more about this than I do, are somewhat divided about the future. I’ll be honest, at times I am apprehensive about mankind’s destiny but I try not to allow emotion to influence my judgment. And I am aware that I don’t know what I don’t know. Besides, I am encouraged by more Berra brilliance and remind myself, “It ain’t over, til it’s over.”