We are largely a stupid species. By design. We are not supposed to use commonsense very often. Its time consuming. When seemingly dangerous situations that induce a flow of extreme emotions appear, its more efficient to not think profoundly about solutions but just go by instinctive solutions instead. Since we are a social species, our instincts are largely composed of tribal survival instincts. Naturally, these instincts follow a decent set of rules when it comes to our survival in the wild. Given some hundred thousand years or so, it was the best Evolution by natural selection could come up with. But as we have learnt over the past few decades from the exciting but depressing field of Heuristics, these rules can frequently become buggy when they are applied to our modern lifestyles.
In order to understand the bugs in our thinking, it is helpful to understand the meaning of “thinking” here. Heuristics are simply defined as algorithms that our brains use when making decisions. They are akin to the rules we write for computer programs. Consider the following diet heuristic that a human may use:
for lunch: if green vegetables: eat it else if ice cream: skip it and drink lots of water for dinner: if chicken salad: eat it else if pasta: skip it and boil eggs
Now this heuristic can be a good or a bad one depending on whether it works for that person or not. I have purposely presented it in a way that resembles the syntax of a computer program to highlight the similarities between how computers are made to “think” and how Evolution designed our decision making. Humans are usually ineffective at following simple and straightforward rules like the one above. Unconsciously though, we are constantly following much more complex heuristics that were hardwired in us over millions of years for our survival. But what we understand now is that these algorithms were not created to bring us closer to the objective reality. They work just well enough to help us not die within few years of our existence but fall quite short when it comes to extracting the most correct information from our environments. Somewhat ironically, one of the first set of people to harness wisdom from these algorithms were folks from marketing. As you will learn in a future post, they used this great knowledge extensively to manipulate their fellow humans into buying more stuff.
But what is most unfortunate is that even though Tversky and Kahneman came out with their groundbreaking ideas in early 1970’s in their paper Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, our education systems never realized the importance of imparting this knowledge to children. One of the biggest blunders in the history of whole enterprise (but not very surprising). I am ignorant of the exact cause of this blunder. The answer could be as simple as “incompetence and stupidity”. Whatever the reason, when the purpose of the system is to “educate”, it is bizarre to not educate the fundamental rules and flaws involved in human thinking. Thinking is what we primarily do as a species.
Year after year, we see stupid decisions being made at every human endeavor that involves thinking. And to be clear, these are not the domains or the decisions where we have to make life and death choices in an instant as is the case in the wild. We have enough time to reflect. But when the brain isn’t even acknowledging and then understanding that something could be wrong with the default processing, how can it go about correcting itself even if given infinite time?
Now more than ever, we need to aggressively market the ideas associated with Heuristics & Biases. We are running out of time (maybe we already have). I am going to play my part by exploring some of the rules of this thinking game and follow it by looking at the errors that are an essential part of this game. These errors are better known as cognitive biases. I absolutely acknowledge that there is enough stuff on the internet on these topics and hundreds have probably articulated these ideas much better than I ever could. Hell, there is even an international bestseller on this topic by the guy who invented the field. But to share this knowledge in a way that even a ten year old can understand, I need to understand it first. And one way to understand it better is by explaining it to myself as a ten year old.
So watch this space if you want to join me on this journey of understanding errors that initially started out as decent solutions to problems in life but then partially turned into parasites that seem to be doing more harm than good.
P.S.: What I did above can be considered a heuristic for explaining heuristics. Whether it is a good one or not is for you to decide.