Constructing Reality #8

Posted on October 21, 2011

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How does Peter  ever make brain-sized sense of these conflicting models of reality?

He, like you, was sold on rationality, and on our smart brains that carefully weigh the pros and cons of any argument and choose the rational alternative – the one supported by logic and evidence. This rational model is both popular and reassuring. Furthermore, when we’re calm and  have the time we occasionally do behave rationally.  We also frequently rely on slow modes when dealing with abstract stuff, like mathematics, or physical objects like building a house. Furthermore we provide scientists with the resources – time, fancy equipment, big computers and blackboards to behave rationally when in their ivory towers, to explore alternatives and weigh the evidence. And sometimes they come up with great stuff.

!nformation overload

But how do we and scientiest make decisions when we’re not calm, when we’re rushed, when we lack evidence or when it’s fuzzy or conflicting, or we face information overload? What kind of models do we use? According to ‘experts’ who have taken the time to study this question, ‘experts’  – Nobel Prize winners like Herb Simon, Amos Tversky and Dan Kahneman – we rely on assumptions and biases to shrink complex puzzles down to mind size, a size that fits out bounded rationality. And we rely on selective – cherry picked – evidence that support those biases. We’re familiar with such biased thinking and decision making – we see it in others every day, in pubs, in political and religious arguments, in observing people who are tired, angry, drunk, in love, in a hurry, etc.  We see it in arguments between scientists when fighting for grant money and journal space promoting their  pet model or theory.

Dan Kahneman

Kahneman discusses these two kinds of decision-making in his new book Thinking fast and slow. 

Peter believes that we’re seeing a gradual shift among both experts and the rest of us, a recognition that the slow, careful mode of reasoning is the exception, and the fast, biased, cherry-picking way is the rule whether we’re driving on a freeway, choosing a mate, buying a house or stocks, or voting for a political candidate.

Notice, most of our important decisions concern the future, which  if you can afford to stop and think about it is highly uncertain. But unless we’re in a relaxed pub bull session or ivory tower lecture theatre  we can’t afford to believe that. If we’re out navigating the busy highway of daily living,we’re making multiple decisions –  choosing a mate, buying a house, boarding a plane, raising our kids, watching the stock market, maxing our credit card, getting Mum into a retirement centre, seeing the dentist, etc. This rat race demands that we rely heavily on blind biases and cherry picked evidence. That’s why so many of us rely on binging, booze and pills – to vainly attempt to slow things down.

With blogs like this we’re trying to shift into slow, rational thinking – at least considering some alternatives and stretching a bit to seek new evidence. But when Peter shuts down his computer, he shifts automatically back to fast lane, biased decision making.

If  you buy the idea that we’re  bounded rationality thinkers who must rely on trusted biases, and cherry picked evidence to make most of our decisions then you’d better have a basketful of trusted biases, or someone you trust who has a good backet of biases (like a mate, or boss, or expert), or you’ll be a worry wart, a procrastinater,  a sweaty palmed flake whose forever changing their mind, who needs a bottle of booze or pills in order to get by.

Watcha think?  Is  basket of biases enough to navigate the fast flow of   daily living… the inundation of  conflicting and fuzzy information?

Info overload: flickr.com/photos/deapeajay/1928521563

Dan Kahneman: Flickr

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Posted in: Sciencing