Improving our cognitive toolkit – The Edge Question 2011 – Part II

Welcome back to some of the thoughtful answers of some bright minds to the question:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

This post is part II of my small series about the Edge Question 2011; if you have missed part I look it up here. Here we go: more ideas worth knowing about:

6 Fixed-Action Patterns – Knee-jerk responses

FAP’s once more are a rather familiar concept to everyone although they are probably better known as knee-jerk responses. Irene Pepperberg makes the point that a deeper understanding of FAP’s in us humans as well as in other organisms we interact with could lead to more insight into and critical evaluation of our behavioral patterns. She argues that by being aware of FAP’s and whether supposed FAP’s truly are hardwired into our genes or rather learned, we can understand, predict and in some cases even change the way we act in certain situations ranging from quick decision making to social interactions. This seems to be especially true when the supposed FAP’s are learned and could possibly be unlearned again. As an example for a supposed FAP that turned out to be learned behaviour Irene Pepperberg mentions the herring gull chicks’ pecking at the red spot on its parents’ beak for food. The innate response was limited to aiming at an oscillating object in its field of view; the targeting of the red spot on the beak was acquired through reward.

image by InAweofGod’sCreation

7 The Pareto Principle – “80/20 rule”

The Pareto Principle says that for many, many aspects in life about 80% of the effects come from roughly 20% of the causes. The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto found this in 1906 when he discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population and it is an important principle in economy today. The numbers 80 and 20 are not what is important here (but they were found to be close in many case) but that a disproportionally large group of effects stems from the top 20 % of causes. Another example from economy, the richest 20% of the world control around 83% of the world’s GDP. The Pareto Principle is also recursive, the 3 richest men in the world own as much as the next 7 together. However, it does not only work in economy. Clay Shirky also mentions twitter amongst other examples: The top 2% of Twitter users send 60% of tweets, in US healthcare 80% of the costs come form treating the 20 most expensive percent of patients, the most severe earthquakes, the social connectedness of friends and so on. These distributions should not be reported as big surprises or shocking news but very often they are. Yet, by realizing the Pareto distributions in appropriate systems and not assuming a bell-shaped Gaussian distribution for all things, we would learn to think about many systems more accurately and could influence those systems more efficiently where necessary. This can range from fair taxing over constraining the volatility of markets to better health care spending.

Image by verbeeldingskr8

Away from economy now, the next 3 concepts will be about our own mind.

8 Subselves

Douglas T. Kendrick suggests Colin Martindale’s concept of subselves as a great addition to everyone’s toolkit. The idea of subselves states that there is no single “you” inside your head. Whoa… who else is there if not just me? According to the theory you have several “you’s” and that who you are is made up of the interplay and the taking charge of several sub-you’s that are more or less prominent in specific situations. The “you” that interacts with your lover is a different “you”, guided by different principles than the “you” that interacts with a business partner. The same goes for a friend or your child. The idea of subselves involves several simple concepts of selective input processing in the brain. Basically, at any given moment our brain is bombarded with so many stimuli that we can only function by categorizing and consciously ignoring almost all of them, in addition a certain set of inputs suppressing other ones. (Focusing will also play a big role in the next two answers to the Edge question.) On higher levels in the brain, these stimuli then lead to one of our subselves taking charge and suppressing the other ones. This idea can combine very well with the more modern concept of brain modularity. We (and animals) use several different mental processes to learn different things so psychologists suggested that there are several different systems (or “you’s”) in our brain to solve different adaptive problems. To use the example from above: one system to respond to your lover and one to respond to your business partner. Perceiving our mind as this set of subselves, Kendrick says, would help us understand why some actions would make sense involving one’s lover but would seem irrational when involving one’s child, as well as other seemingly irrational behaviours.

Image by Mrs Logic

9 Controlling the Spotlight

Image by LarimdaME

As pointed out above, the ability to focus is central to this idea as well. The psychologist Walter Mischel was interested in studying willpower. He tested willpower in 4-year olds by presenting them a plate of treats and told them they could either have one right now or two when he would return.  He then left the room and studied how long they could resist the temptation of eating one of the treats. Only a small percentage of the kids could wait for him to return and he concluded that willpower is inherently weak. He did notice though that the few children that could successfully fight their desire all, without exception, used the same strategy – they diverted their attention from the treats and occupied themselves with another activity. In a nutshell they seemed to forget about the treats. Mischel termed this ability to strategically allocate attention. Interestingly, when Mischel went back and looked up the participants of his study 13 years later, their results in the willpower test correlated astonishingly well with overall success in life. Kids who could wait longer in the willpower test had on average higher S.A.T. scores, had less behavioural problems, could maintain friendships more easily, found it easier to pay attention and struggled less in stressful situations. Jonah Lehrer nominates this skill set for improving everyone’s cognitive toolkit. He points out that in the modern day world with all its distractions and flood of information, being able to focus on the important things becomes more and more valuable. He says that “the world is a confusing place, full of data and distractions – intelligence is the ability to parse the data so that it makes just a little bit more sense.”

10 The Focusing Illusion – Anchoring

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” This sums up Daniel Kahneman’s answer to the question. The focusing illusion is a cognitive bias; it means that people often focus too much on an initial assumption when making decisions. This “anchor” may usually be something learned early on in childhood or some arbitrary value that someone else (or you yourself) put in your mind. There are countless examples for this in life; Kahneman uses the importance of education as a determinant of income as his prime example. Education sure is one of the most important factors when determining future income, but not as much as people think. He says that differences in income among people with the same education are immense and would everyone have the same education, differences in income would only be reduced by less than 10%. There are other prominent misperceptions, like judging whether people in California or the Midwest are happier (bias on sunshine) or judging a used car’s value (bias on model year and odometer reading). Politicians and marketers are experts in exploiting the focusing illusion, for good and bad. Understanding this concept may help in many aspects of life, being able to identify anchors for example could help resist tempting advertising, yet it could also help you in guiding people in a certain direction you want them to go.

Image by Leo Reynold

That’s it for this entry, still to come in the next post amongst others: professional wrestling, superorganisms and what my own answer to the Edge question would have been. Come back!



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