Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Getting past "mind bugs"

From Mahzarin Banaji, Psychology Department at Harvard:
I am bullish about the mind's ability to unravel the beliefs contained within it—including beliefs about its own nature...the ability of humans everywhere to go against the grain of their own beliefs that are familiar, that feel natural and right, and that appear to be fundamentally true...

We've done this sort of unraveling many times before, whether it is about the relationship of the sun to the earth, or the relationship of other species to us. We've put aside what seemed natural, what felt right, and what came easily in favor of the opposite. I am optimistic that we are now ready to do the same with questions about the nature of our own minds. From the work of pioneers such as Herb Simon, Amos Tversky, and Danny Kahneman we know that the beliefs about our own minds that come naturally, feel right, and are easy to accept aren't necessarily true. That the bounds on rationality keep us from making decisions that are in our own interest, in the interest of those we love, in the long-term interest of our societies, even the planet, even perhaps the universe, with which we will surely have greater opportunity to interact in this century.

Here are some examples of what seems natural, feels right, and is easy to believe in—even though it isn't rational or true.

We irrationally anchor: ask people to generate their social security number and then the number of doctors in their city and the correlation between the two numbers will be significantly positive, when in fact it ought to be zero—there's no relation between the two variables. That's because we can't put the first one aside as we generate the second.

We irrationally endow: give somebody a cheap mug, and once it's "my mug" through ownership (and nothing else) it becomes, in our minds, a somewhat less cheap mug. Endowed with higher value, we are likely to demand a higher price for it than it is worth or is in our interest to demand.

We irrationally see patterns where non exist: Try to persuade a basketball player, fan, or statistician that there isn't anything to the idea of streak shooting; that chance is lumpy and that that's all there is to Michael Jordan's "hot hand".

...such "mind bugs" extend to the beliefs and preferences we have about ourselves, members of our own social groups, and those who sit farther away on a scale of social distance....We don't intend to discriminate or treat unfairly, but we do....The ability to think about one's own long range interest, to self-regulate and delay gratification, to consider the well-being of the collective, especially to view the collective as unbounded by religion, language, or nationality requires a mental leap that isn't natural or easy. And yet each new generation seems to be able to do it more successfully than the previous one...old beliefs come unraveled because such unraveling is in our self-interest...we unravel existing beliefs and preferences because we wish them to be in line with our intentions and aspirations and recognize that they are not. I see evidence of this everywhere—small acts to be the person one wishes to be rather than the person one is—and it is the constant attempt at this alignment that gives me optimism.

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