The recent spate of books on the brain and its power, or lack thereof, are slowly undermining my confidence in my ability to think, reason, and decide. And not just because I’m in my sixties. And, since these flaws in judgment are common to all human beings, I’m also looking askance at the decision making powers of our esteemed leaders, as well.
Here’s a sample of the “Brainy Book” titles out there: Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions; The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us; The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable; Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious; Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, and my personal favorite, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
There are lots of brain tics, biases, illusions, and mental mishaps catalogued by Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, that are both fascinating and upsetting. Kahneman argues that there are two systems of thinking. System 2 thinking is deliberate, conscious, and slow. You have to make a cognitive effort to access it and we’re often too lazy to do a thorough job.
System 1, on the other hand, is quick, flighty, and associative, rather than carefully evaluative. It was designed by evolution to use “shortcuts” to offer immediate impressions of the environment, important in times of danger. Now it can serve to trip us up unless we allow System 2 to take over.
Here’s one compelling example- the “Priming Effect” -an unconscious process of association.
In one experiment subjects were asked to form 4-word sentences from a group of 5 words. The 5 words were either neutral (such as ‘finds he it yellow instantly) or loaded with terms associated with old-age (such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkle.) The subjects were then asked to walk down the hall to another room. The subjects who formed sentences using words related to old-age walked slower than those who did not. So it would seem that the particular words prime thoughts of old age, though the word old is never mentioned; second, these thoughts prime a behavior, walking slowly, which is associated with old age. All of this happens without awareness. The idea of old age had not come into their conscious awareness but their actions changed.
Kahneman offers hundreds of examples to show the unforeseen and sometimes calamitous effects of priming on people’s ability to think rationally, though they are usually not aware of it.
The “take away” of these “brainy books” is that, while we think we are making rational, considered, decisions, we are actually being bamboozled by parts of our brains that push quick, intuitive answers that can result in sloppy thinking, or even disaster. What these authors, scientists of all stripes, are trying to do (In my opinion) is save us from ourselves by revealing our crude, biased, distorted thinking processes so we can turn over a new mental leaf and adopt clearer thinking so as to improve our lives, preserve democracy, avert chaos, and save our planet. If only.
Ironically, when the participants in the experiments were given proof of their errors in thinking, they reacted with confusion, silence, or skepticism. There was no pledge to to mend their thoughtless ways! So I guess the definitive “Brainy Book” has yet to be researched and written, the one that will convince us to take our messed up brains more seriously.