Monday, August 23, 2010

I decide, therefore I err

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, neuroscience

A centipede was happy quite,
Until a frog in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg comes after which?"
This raised her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in the ditch
Considering how to run.
I teach music as a side job, guitar and 5-string banjo. When a student gets discouraged at all the mechanics, I say that it takes a few months to learn the instrument, or a year or two for certain challenging techniques. But they can expect a breakthrough at some point, where they find they are not playing the instrument, they are playing the music. Some are comforted, but some give up. When I was learning to play, my father encouraged me to practice in the dark, so my hands would learn where to go without help from my eyes. That is some of the best advice I ever got.

Once we are "grownups", so much of what we do has become so innate that we have to struggle to think of occasions where we needed to consciously do anything. But do you remember the first time you bought a costly item such as a car, a washing machine, or a house? or chose a college major, or a first job? how about a spouse, did you think about that, or just fall for the first person who seemed interested? No matter what age we are, the first time we do something, it takes a great deal of consideration. And the fact is, we don't like to think. We aren't used to it (except for the occasional physicist or something).

In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer digs into what lies underneath our decision-making and learning processes. The psychology and neuroscience of making choices reveal why we make so many "pretty good" decisions, and also explain our spectacular blunders.

Almost three weeks ago I reviewed Wrong by David H Freedman, which exposes the worse-than-chance record of most "experts". What makes so many people so wrong so much of the time? Jonah Lehrer has a few answers.

Although he develops his thesis in eight chapters, the most telling is Chapter 7, "The Brain is an Argument". We have the funny archetype of having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each trying to persuade us. The reality is that the angel and devil have a half dozen companions, each with its own point of view, and, we must understand, each with its own limitations.

At the base of our mental equipment we have a powerful pattern-recognition engine that works very quickly and gives us a "This is/is not familiar" signal almost instantly. The deliberative engine in our frontal lobes goes into high gear when a "not familiar" signal arrives, because we need to evaluate what to do now. But an "it's familiar" signal triggers a lot of other emotional reactions, depending on an accompanying "pleasant/unpleasant" or "reward/loss" memory. The problem is, the pattern recognizer is so powerful it finds patterns that are often imaginary. Trying to figure out a Roulette wheel, or the stock market, keeps it in overdrive, with no useful result. We need to learn to discount random input as just noise.

When we are in a new situation, however, and a decision is needed, we need to figure it out. We are the most thoughtful of animals, with by far the largest amount of deliberative gray matter. Strangely enough, our "thinker" has its limits, and they are more restrictive than we might imagine. Someone can remember a five-to-eight digit number for a minute or two, which is why local telephone numbers were set at seven digits. We can consider three or four factors when making a decision, which makes us really good at choosing the best potato peeler at the kitchen-gadget store: with a little thought, we realize that they all work about as well, so among those that fit the hand best, we can just choose the least expensive. But if we have too much information to weigh, we get analysis paralysis. The author reports on an experiment in which people were given four pieces of information about four kinds of auto, and other people were given twelve bits of information about the same four cars. The ones who had "less to go on" reached a decision quickly, and were more satisfied that their decision was right, when queried a few days later, compared to the others.

In a follow-up experiment, though one group was given lots of information about the cars, they were prodded to decide quickly. In the end, they were happier with their decisions. This is something I have noticed. I have a tendency to analyze things to death. But I have also found that the first answer I reach is usually the best answer in the end. It is like the reptile brain deep inside was able to glance at the problem, send up a feeling about the right choice, and all that the analyzer could do in the end was confirm the decision.

When our life is on the line, and nothing is familiar, what can we do then? It is necessary to think it through. If needed, we might use this or that stopgap to buy time, but the crucial skill is to take the time needed to find a useful remedy. Our emotions are no help when nothing is familiar; they can then be a detriment, perhaps a fatal one if we panic. If we live through the situation, we'll be the one who is able to "see it coming a mile off," should it happen again.

The emotional brain learns from our mistakes. The good or bad feeling we get about any decision (and there is always a feeling) is based on past experience. The key to life is to make our mistakes in non-lethal settings. This makes devices such as flight simulators the tremendous asset that they are. If only we could have enough driving simulators to train our 15-year-olds to drive, by letting them get into virtual accidents where it won't kill them. (I did the best I could by teaching my son basic driving skills starting at age 12. By the time he was licensed, he had almost five years experience in safe settings, and is a safer driver than he might otherwise be.)

I sum up the book's thesis with the proverb, "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."

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