The world around us is prohibitively-complex to fully discern. This fact is undebatable: there are examples everywhere. To compensate, human beings have to form generalizations, or heuristics, about decision-making. They are mental shortcuts that we use every day, without which we would not be able to keep up with demanding, fast-paced modern society. Historically, this ability to make quick unconscious judgments had been useful when aggressive reactions and the fight-or-flight response were necessary to outrun predators, to stretch the human’s physical ability to cope in times of stress. But in a protective, dominating, first-world country, heuristics play a different role.
When you investigate the cause of dispute and argument, it eventually narrows down to the fact that someone is wrong. Either there is not enough information available to reach an agreement, or cognitive biases overwhelm sense and reason1. When we use our heuristics, we tend to focus on one determining element to make a decision even though the costs and benefits of decisions are never so simple2. We find evidence of the legitimacy of our own actions when we see others following suit, rationalizing that someone out there must be an expert and must know what they’re doing, regardless of whether anyone has really reasoned out our social norms3. We misinterpret statistics that appeal to our emotions and poor understanding of numbers4.
See, cognitive generalizations can be BAD! Yet some people do like to live every day relying only on their heuristic ability. Here is the problem: finding our own mental biases is difficult and slow, and in some situations, generally unacceptable to society. I explain it to myself with virtual machines in computer programming.
Our most frequent and useful decisions are processed in machine code–it is interpreted directly by the brain and we are never aware of it. We’re not aware that we’re thinking. How can we know that we’re thinking when thinking of thinking is thinking itself? In contrast, guarding against cognitive biases and errors in judgement require virtualization. A virtual machine is a computer that is running inside another computer. Each of the parts of a computer–processing, memory, disk i/o, graphical output–are simulated. It is always slower than an actual computer because there is an extra layer of machine in the way, but virtual machines can do two things a normal computer can’t. First, you can inspect a virtual machine as it’s running, pause it, slow it down, and advance it step-by-step. Second, you can simulate all kinds of different scenarios on a virtual machine.
In our brains, “virtual machines” provide higher-level cognitive functions like compassion, empathy, and social awareness. When you predict your dad’s response to something you’re about to say, or when you imagine how your best bud must be feeling, you are simulating them in your brain. The simulation is much slower and nowhere near as complete as the original person, but it serves a purpose and enables us to think things we couldn’t otherwise think.
So heuristics are fast but shallow, while advanced cognition is slow but profound. There must be a compromise between being too rational and ignorance, and only by keeping this balance can we.. maintain the peace? improve the world? Maybe nothing at all. It’s simply important to realize how much better social interaction becomes when you throw more brain at it.
- Debates in which there is a direct conflict of interest suffer from a general lack of information. The classic example of killing Bob the penniless pariah so his organs can save a doctor, a diplomat, and an entrepreneur can be resolved as follows: taking into account the availability of purposeless donors and the information costs of finding another candidate, Bob would agree to the sacrifice if he knew absolutely everything about and every effect on the individuals whom would be affected. ↩︎
- I found terminology for these on Wikipedia. It really helps in arguments when you can summarize such a long idea into one word like anchoring. ↩︎
- I found this one too, under the Heuristics article: social proof. ↩︎
- Or, we are so cynical as to claim that statistics are worthless and meaningless because of their extensive ability to be manipulated. ↩︎