Thursday, 3 August 2017

Trying To Solve An Age-Old Puzzle Of Humanity

With Venezuela in chaos, and with the recent calls for Jeremy Corbyn to publically apologise for his insanely short-sighted endorsement of Hugo Chavez, it would seem like an obvious thing for Corbyn to admit he’s been a fool and repudiate his former beliefs. But of course, we know that’s not going to happen: there is about as much chance of that happening as there is of Diane Abbott being asked to present the numbers round on Countdown.

This is, of course, one of the age-old puzzles of humanity - why human beings are so terribly beset by confirmation bias (the tendency to embrace information that supports your beliefs and reject information that contradicts them) and so intransigently irrational even when presented with good reasons that they are wrong about things. I’ve thought about this in the past, and I think the reason is twofold.

The first reason is that our biological evolution has resulted in our being very flawed creatures. Our evolutionary legacies are seen broadly across our behaviour, because they are vestiges of our past. The evolution of the eye has left us with a large blind area in the middle of the retina. Our prurience is the result of our sexual past.  Our long spine and susceptibility to back pains and injuries are the result of our quadruped ancestry. Our wisdom teeth are a result of our once having bigger jaws.

Plus our fear of the dark, our blushing, our sneezing, our hairs standing up, our goose bumps, our reactions to moving objects, our trepidation at wild animals, and our behavioural similarities with other primates closest to us in origin, all of these show that we are a medley of inherited ineptitudes, built for the Savannah. 

The second reason is that our cognition is an evolved phenomenon just like all our other evolved traits, and the kind of reasoning (or lack of) we are complaining about when Corbyn won’t change his mind about Venezuelan socialism is not the kind of cognition that we’ve optimally evolved.

Our biggest selection pressures on survival were much more about group symbiosis and cooperation than trying to solve lateral and complex problems. Things like confirmation bias and other general irrationalities are probably bootstrapped by powerful underlying survival legacies that stretch out across our evolutionary past.

Consequently, although this might seem counterintuitive at first, it’s probably largely true that the kind of habits of human thinking that best helped us survive in tribes with an in-group mentality are also the kind of habits that don’t serve us well when it comes to abstract reasoning and intellectual discourse. To be smart you have to unlearn as well as learn.

One would think that in an evolutionary game of survival, mistaken thoughts would disadvantage us - after all, failure to process facts and truths accurately can cost you your life if a predator is lurking. But maybe that is to uncover the answer - our evolution has primed us for over-simplistic analyses precisely because our brains are designed by natural selection to form patterns of causality that once upon a time aided us in survival. 

This has been demonstrated in studies of brain states, where neurological analyses have shown how our brains naturally become excited when they interface with patterns, harmony, beauty, and symmetry - it seems we are primed to place a higher qualitative value on pattern over non-pattern and beauty over ugliness.

But there is a price to pay. Suppose you're a distant ancestor still making sense of the world - you will gain by false positives, but you are liable to lose a lot if you get it wrong. A rustling in the bushes may be the wind, but it may be a predator. It's more costly to assume it's a predator and find out it's the wind than to assume it's the wind and find out it's a predator.

So over the years we have been primed for false positives - to sense potential danger, patterns and breaks from normalcy, and ascribe them to something causal or deliberate or predatory, even when such things are not there.

As well as that, it has been useful for us to evolve mechanisms for thinking simplistically. Intellection has served us well in rising to great heights as a species, but thinking simplistically means humans too fondly look to pigeon-hole things into black and white, with a primary focus on right or wrong and true or false, without understanding or considering the complex areas of grey in between.

When you combine that with the aforementioned tendency to see patterns when none are there, and the tendency for tribalism and in-group mentality, you can see how susceptible humans are to falling into bad thinking habits.

Once you combine all that with two other effects; the Dunning-Kruger effect (overestimating your own competence in reasoning) and the illusion of explanatory depth (believing you know more of the complex, finer details of a situation than you actually do) it is fairly easy to see why humans are constantly getting so much wrong, and why even when presented with good reason to change their mind, it’s quite unlikely that they will.