Futures Rambling #101

In the book, The Enigma of Reason cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber help us understand the concept of bias using the analogy of a mouse who is bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats in the world. One can quickly see the inherent danger when the mouse becomes a kitty snack. On the world stage examples abound from the silly, e.g. Trump’s ‘birther debate’ to those with broader implications, such as denying climate change.

Sadly, to add to the list, we humans have another fault referred to as ‘myside bias’ clouding our reason. People are amazingly efficient at spotting weaknesses in another’s approach, but can be completely blind to their own. Sperber and Mercier suggests this occurs when the pace of change in the environment is too fast for natural selection to catch up. There are many examples, one is the dizzying speed that technology and digital interfaces have entering our environments, and the impact they have.

Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, also cognitive scientists, put it another way. They say people are simply dumb and believe they know more than they actually do. Ignorance fuels bias. To make the point they suggest thinking about a toilet. It’s of course one thing to flush one and another to know how it actually operates.

As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding. This is particularly worrisome when people who think alike collect together and form dangerous communities of stupidity. One excellent example would be the Trump’s cabinet and their highly inexperienced advisors. Really, who knew selling handbags and shoes was transferable to running a nation, but has it kept Ivanka from the West Wing?

Humans are so flawed, even our own physiology sets us up for failure. We experience a rush of dopamine when our beliefs are reinforced by others. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that control the brain’s reward and pleasure center; consequently, thinking you’re right and sticking to your guns, even when you’re wrong, produces a rush of dopamine. We actually get high. It’s sick and warped in the same cruel way a dopamine rush from checking email is.

A final addition to the list of flaws is implicit bias. They are learned bias associated with various qualities or social categories such as race or gender. These are currently playing a critical role in America right now, think about the Black Lives Matter debate. Implicit bias are hard to correct because they’re based on rehearsed, or learned, neural connections in the brain. Unfortunately, our brains are very good at leaning, they are not very good at unlearning.

If we can’t rely on data, because no one believes in it anymore and logic and reason are prone to bias, might we perhaps we turn to intraception? This is the term psychologist use to describe those who process the world primarily through their feelings or emotions.

Lisa Feldman Barret, professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, discusses this approach in her book How Emotions are Made. The long held belief that emotions are hard-wired in neurons in the brain is one she challenges, the status quo thinking is these neurons are automatically triggered when something happens to produce a specific emotional response.

Instead, she suggests emotions are more complex. For example a smile cannot provide clues to appreciate the nuances of a given emotion because there is more than one type of sadness, happiness or awe and emotions vary from culture to culture. She’s coined ‘the theory of constructed emotion’ which posits the brain relies on the past to construct the present. It predicts what to expect, and what actions to take, from sensory input based on experiences rather than hard wiring.

Thinking about this from your brains point of view it makes sense, it’s in your skull with no access to what causes the sensations it receives; it only has the effects. Given the plethora of human flaws outlined above what’s great about this is that Barret believes it is entirely possible to invest energy into cultivating new experiences that in time, if practiced, will become automated emotional responses.

Architects and designers can learn from this. If we know people’s immediate emotional response to change is ‘no way, no how, not doing that’ and we also know banging our heads against the wall trying to change beliefs hurts, we should stop talking and start creating experiences. It’s not complex, in fact the benefits of exposure to new things was introduced by the famous Dr. Suess in the legendary tome Green Eggs and Ham.

If all else fails there is always professional help to be sought. Extreme lost causes can be sent away for neuroscience-based coaching and cognitive behavioural therapy. Yes it’s a real thing. There are even programs to overcome implicit bias called Raciest Anonymous, naturally this concept was conceived of and is held in California (there’s an example of implicit bias in action). Finally, if the people you deal with are just plain stupid, perhaps suggest they immigrate to America. I hear there are still spots in the Trump administration up for grabs.