CELTENHAM U3A - MAY 2011 MEETING . 2nd session.


TITLE - WHY DO WE (HUMANS) ACT THAT WAY?

Is it because we are pre- programmed , or conditioned, to act that way?

Will you take the last three numbers of your home phone number, add 200, write it down or remember it, we will need it later.

(Generically the term HEURISTICS (Greek root ‘discover) ’ in this topic has a particular meaning. Not to be confused with the more common uses in philosophy and computing.)

We learned from John Moss-Jones in 2008 about the brain, about its structure and the rising tide of knowledge about how it works a work in progress; so too is the study of the applications layer or layers of the human brain. We learned from John that the brain is 2% of body weight, uses 15% of cardiac ouput, 20% of body oxygen, 25% of body glucose. The cortex contains 15-33 billion neurons, each with 10,000 synaptic connections. 1 cc of neurons from the brain would contain 1 billion synapses. So what are they using that energy and networks for?

It is understood that each side of the asymmetrical brain is involved in all that we do, that every identifiable activity involves both sides but in different ways. There is vast redundancy, enormous connectivity, vast signalling bandwidth, and both sides are involved in creativity, reason, language, but their processing capabilities are different. Can we assume that the world is real, that we exist, and that we recognise that not everyone allows that conclusion.


Optional paragraph. If we have time.

The structure of the brain, where mind meets matter, must , unless it has no role in bringing the world as we know it into being, which position has few adherents, be significant as to how we mediate the world. This leads to a supposition that there are two fundamentally opposed “realities”, two modes of experience, and that each is important in bringing about the recognisably human world. The sides need to cooperate, and do, but are involved in a power struggle.. The right hemisphere seems to have primacy, and to be in contact with the lived world, dealing with the implicit, the new, the ambiguous, different things, whereas the left side seems to be already- knowing, and explicit. We, or many of us, believe that we have free will. Others will argue that is one of a number of illusions necessary for us to sustain personally, and for societies. If one pays too much attention to anything it changes, and the most important things in our lives can be destroyed by too much attention. One cannot will sleep, to be wise, to be innocent, to be kind, to be loved. The best things in our lives are not apparently to be found in the glare of focussed attention. It seems that the left side of our brains makes the implicit explicit, after which it seems to be our willed action or thought. We seem also to automatically make natural , even conceptual assessments based on previous experience before we think about it. The pieces that then do not fit are slowly to alter our view of the whole. This feature I think goes some way to explain why we jump to so many conclusions. Emotions too, a prime affect, act strongly on decisions and assessments, and errors. If that scenario is half right then integration of right and left must occur somewhere between the two hemispheres; the right side needs the left to unpack experience, because it is in contact with the lived world of novelty, nuance, creativity, imagination, whence stimulation comes.

TYPE 1 INTUITIVE THINKING

TYPE 2 REASONED THINKING

FAST/AUTOMATIC

SLOW/CHOICES.

SLOW LEARNING

CONTROLLED.

TRACKS EMOTION,SURPRISE,

FLEXIBLE.

HARD TO UNLEARN

MONITORS AND CHECKS

EFFORTLESS

EFFORTFUL.

ASSOCIATIVE/NATURAL ASSESSMENTS

FOLLOWS RULES.

HARD TO CONTROL





This is not intended here to be bleak, I am not talking about is the disorders, many though they are, I know nothing much about them . However in common with yourselves I am a functioning brain (laughter from audience expected) and I think that it sees, hears, thinks, talks, understands, concludes, dismisses, yearns, likes, dislikes, believes some things, and so on. It also notices and responds to the everyday actions of other brains into which it comes into contact. It thinks it knows stuff, it is wrong about many perhaps most things, and its operation interests me and is a source of wonder.

Dr Daniel Kahneman, NL 2002, Amos Taversky, (both at Princeton) earlier Simon (NL) and many others have since about 1969 been systematically trying to get to grips with the applications layer and testing for the causes of systematic errors of judgment. What DK calls behavioural heuristics. That is my chosen topic, the way and why of how we behave in everyday situations.

Heuristics are behaviours which humans exhibit readily, they are experience-based techniques for problem solving that deliver everyday “good enough” solutions. They may be called “common-sense” or rule of thumb, or an educated guess. These actions are fast and frugal, effortless, slow learning, hard to unlearn, error prone, strategies devised to be readily accessible, to help problem solving. It is argued that these are hard coded into us by evolutionary processes to explain how we make decisions, solve problems, typically when faced with complex matters or incomplete information. The rules can work but are subject to biases. There is a notion that I want to add, that of associative coherence. The mind seems to be a machine made for jumping to conclusions, and once made it spreads ideas within its network, finds confirmations and examples which make it all seem coherent. If it seems so then we will go with it. I will show you a simple example.

Is it important? There are consequences for relationships, safety, evidence, justice, objectivity, manipulation, at least. Dr Kahneman received the 2002 NL prize for economics, The Prospect Theory.

Let us start at the everyday; here is a piece of BBC film. The McGurk effect, followed by PP of illusions.

That we don’t hear or see everything, or everything , or compute everything can be demonstrated. We have an interface to the world that is clearly multi-capable, but when tested, is apparently working to a relatively small number of ready made responses. Here is a list and some examples of , all that I know of are in the written text which will be posted on the web, including my preparations.

Heuristics. It will not help in the slightest if I say that these Heuristic biases usually come wrapped around one or more emotions!

Ambiguity. We resolve ambiguity at the interface rapidly, and without much thought. I shall demonstrate that

Confirmation bias; in which I search for evidence and continue as long as it supports the conclusions that I have, but I will terminate the search when evidence supports different conclusions. Politics is a good example, a Labour supporter probably throws a Conservative flyer in the bin! Some are highly defensive in this regard and die in a ditch for their conclusion.

Premature termination – we conclude a search when we find an alternative that looks like it might work.

Inertia. Unwillingness to change in new circumstances.

Availability Heuristic. In which people predict the frequency of an event, or proportion within a population based on how easily an example can be brought to mind. Illegal immigrants is an example for readers of say the DM, or DE. Or an anecdote of “I know someone who…….” (which single case is used to support an entire proposition. The ease of imagining an example, the vividness and emotional impact becomes more credible than statistical evidence. It is easily available. People tend to rate the chances of events causing death according to more newsworthy events. So air crashes (are very uncommon) over car crashes (more likely)

Naïve heuristic. People will invest in a fund more if the fund is bigger!

Selective perception. We screen out information that we think is not important (prejudice)

Wishful thinking, optimism bias. We want to see things in a positive light, too much.

Choice-supportive bias. Occurs when we distort memories of chosen and rejected options, to make chosen options more attractive. More recent memories act more strongly, as do more familiar items. We forget more distant memories, we value things that we own more than those that other people own.

Repetition bias. We tend to believe something that we have heard or read most often. The more sources the strong the bias becomes.

Anchoring and adjustment. Decisions are unduly influenced by initial information that shapes our view. Attila the Hun’s defeat in Europe, tested by giving people a simple number whence it seems they become rooted to that number in making a decision. Membership of UN bodies similarly.

Group think, peer pressure. Source credibility. We accept something more readily from someone we like, right or wrong. Incremental decision making and escalating commitment. We seem to make decisions as small steps in a process, which seems to perpetuate a series of similar decisions. Some call this the slippery slope.

Attibution asymmetry. We attribute our successes to our skill knowledge and talents, our failures to misfortune and external factors. We can attribute others’ success to good luck and their failures to their mistakes!

Uncertainty and illusion of control. We underestimate future uncertainty believing that we have more control over events than we do.

Security bias. The selection is made on the basis of an instant bias, in this case from security. In repeated tests people respond to a question “would you pay more for insurance which provides cover against death from terrorism than one simply for all causes.” Yes. The bias is fear, yet such an eventuality is disappearingly small. Rare forms of death, by shark attack, lightning, are thought much more common than they are because the fear bias is injected.

Escalation of commitment. Throwing good money after bad. Aka the sunk cost fallacy. Parties do this in a bidding war just to justify some other cost or action.

Contagion, Don’t go to China because of SARS, don’t eat eggs because they have Salmonella.

Effort,

Familiarity, I like that parking place and if it is empty I use it. So do others you will note. Seats on trains, buses, restaurants.

Fluency,

Gaze. If you look at something long enough it will change.

Natural assessments. Poker players, Woody Allen, Chess players, Mastermind winners.

Natural assessments become coherent when they spread with ideas in an internal network. The assessment picks up further previous known data or prejudice and when worked it becomes coherent, feasible. Dangerous!

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Here are some worked examples

1 The complex calculation, the angry woman, the sad man What did we do?

What is happening here? It can be argued that the brain appears to have to modes, 1 and 2 say, one which is fast and the other less so. Type 1 is fast to react but slow to learn,


1 The ABC 12 13 14 questions.

A series of images of letters and numbers, in which the B and 13 are identically written, and a completely screwed up text. Demonstrates how good we are at ambiguity. A heuristic.

2 The colour test.

A quick flash test of colours, ending in a word (BLUE) which is often read out as the brain fails to stop reading colours and starts to read words. Reading is Type 1 thinking.

3 The bat and ball.

A favourite simple test to show how one can become anchored on in this case the 10p; moreover our system 2 thinking is not monitoring and checking answers. If we do, then we get stuck on it and can not work out the the answer.

4 The Mongol hordes.

A group of people are asked to write down the last three numbers of their telephone number; 044. Add 400 = 244. Some time later ask them to guess which era did Atilla come to grief in Europe (the answer is 453 AD) but those with numbers in their head like 1199 will go for 13C and those like mine (444) will go for the lowest probably. It is the anchoring attribution.

5 The simple question vs the complex question.

A common place thing. One is asked a complex question, difficult to answer. If we are in authority or an expert we will substitute a different and easier one. Attribut substitution. Politicians do it all the time, and so do we. We do not even have to think about it, we just do it because it is a heuristic!

Eg. MH Let me ask the prime minister once more, did the UN inspection team discover evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? PM The Iraqi regime is capable of deploying and firing a weapon within 45 minutes which is capable of targeting British Forces in Cyprus.

So for simplicity I am without the working going to propose that our everyday head, like Worzel Gummage’s thinking ‘ead, interacts with the world like this. There are two modes, and these are the characteristics.

TYPE 1 INTUITIVE THINKING



TYPE 2 REASONED THINKING

FAST/AUTOMATIC

SLOW/CHOICES.

SLOW LEARNING

CONTROLLED.

TRACKS EMOTION,SURPRISE,

FLEXIBLE.

HARD TO UNLEARN

MONITORS AND CHECKS

EFFORTLESS

EFFORTFUL.

ASSOCIATIVE/NATURAL ASSESSMENTS

FOLLOWS RULES.

HARD TO CONTROL



Conclusion I

It seems unarguable that rational in-control beings act as though in control but rely a good deal on what part of our brain already knows and is delivering to our conscious and unconscious selves as responses and actions to which we have ourselves contributed. Some, many are clearly pre-programmed. Somewhere inside, emotions, liking, disliking, laughing, feeling, blushing, smelling, hearing, seeing, ignoring, loving, boring, enthusing, deciding, doubting, hurting, sad, depressed, empathetic, pathetic, determined, weak, strong, creative, imitating, cooperating, destroying, are just some of the events created readily in our brains. These in turn are reinforced by cognitive biases, Cofirmation bias, Premature termination bias, Inertia bias, Selective perception bias, wishful thinking bias, choice supportive bias, recency bias, repetition bias, group think (peer pressure) attribution asymmetry, underestimating bias, illusion of control,

Conclusion II.

I have spoken about behavioural heuristics and the way we might think; the proposal that we all, far from being free-willed, are mostly behaving according to some hard-wired responses, strongly driven by biases, even prejudices, with little or no conscious thought, that we are unable to unlearn these easily. Our decisions are soaked in rule of thumb, unconscious responses and emotions. Our free will is an illusion, created in our brain, and itself a heuristic. This form of behaviour is a shield, which has enabled us to survive. The answer to the question, why do we behave that way? Is because we are programmed that way to survive, and whilst some of it can be unlearned, usually it isn’t and we derive comfort from it.


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Prof. Daniel Kahneman Nobel Laureate 2002 has written of his experience in Nazi-occupied France, explaining in part why he entered the field of psychology:

“It must have been late 1941 or early 1942. Jews were required to wear the Star of David and to obey a 6 p.m.curfew. I had gone to play with a Christian friend and had stayed too late. I turned my brown sweater inside out to walk the few blocks home. As I was walking down an empty street, I saw a German soldier approaching. He was wearing the black uniform that I had been told to fear more than others – the one worn by specially recruited SS soldiers. As I came closer to him, trying to walk fast, I noticed that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over, picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting “


Footnote

Heuristics ; in philosophy, (adjective) is used when an entity x exists to enable understanding of some other entity y. A model say is a heuristic device. Metaphors, stories, are heuristics.

The common ones are : Anchoring , Focussing, Anchoring and Adjusting, Attribute Substitution, Availability, Recency, Representativeness, Illusion, Affect, Contagion, Effort, Familiarity, Fluency, Naivety, Gaze, Security, Similarity, Escalation. (there are many others)

In computer science a heuristic is a technique that is designed to solve a problem, in which whether the output is correct or not is ignored. Anti virus scanners use heuristics to gain performance but at the cost of accuracy or precision. In other words, it looks like a virus or Trojan say, but might not be.

Kathryn Scultz and American writer has written about being wrong, “Adventures in the margin of error” 2010. What does it feel like to be wrong she asks. Pretty much the same as being right we think. In practice we are conditioned to avoid mistakes, we construct defences against it, because the moment we realise that we are wrong is a miserable moment. It shouldn’t be, being wrong is good, so long as we learn what was wrong.