Informed Bets

Informed Bets

My last post was about limitations of the human mind and why we should be willing to doubt our conclusions and beliefs. This post contrasts my last post to argue that we can trust the informed bets that our brains make. Our brains and bodies do not have the capabilities to fully capture all of the information necessary to perfectly replicate reality in our minds, but they can do a good job putting information together in a way that helps us successfully navigate the world and our lives. Informed guesses, that is assumptions and intuitions based on experience and expertise rather than random and amateurish judgements, are actually very useful and often good approximations.

 

“Intelligence…” Gerd Gigerenzer writes in his book Risk Savvy, “is the art of making informed guesses.” Our brains make a lot of predictions and rely on heuristics, assumptions, and guesses to get by. It turns out that our brains do this well, as Gigerenzer argues in his book. We don’t need to pull out graph paper and a scientific calculator to catch a football. We don’t need to record every thought and action we have had over the last month to know if we are happy with our New Year’s resolutions and can keep them going. When we see someone standing in a long customer service line at the grocery store we don’t need to approach them with a 100 point questionnaire to know whether they are bored or upset.  Informed bets and reasonable guesses are sufficient for us to have decent and functional understanding of the world.

 

Gigerenzer continues, “Intelligence means going beyond the information given and making informed bets on what’s outside.” This quote is introduced after an optical illusion, where a grayscale checkerboard is shown with a figure casting a shadow across the board. Two squares on the board are the same shade of gray, yet our minds see the squares as different colors. Our minds are going beyond the information given, the literal wavelength of light reaching the back of our eyes, and making informed bets on the relative colors of the squares on the board if there was not a figure to cast a shadow. In the case of the visual illusion, our brain’s guess about reality is actually more helpful for us than the literal reality of the same colors of the squares in the image.

 

Bounded rationality is a serious concern. We cannot absorb all the information that exists in the world which may help us make better decisions. However, humans are intelligent. We can use the information we receive and make informed bets about the best choices and decisions available. We might not be perfect, but by making informed bets and educated guesses we can successfully come to understand the world and create systems and structures that help us improve our understanding over time.
Post Hoc Conclusions

Post Hoc Conclusions

Our minds see a lot of patterns that don’t exist. We make observations of randomness and find patterns that we assume to be based on a causal link when in reality no causal structure exists between our observations. This can happen in 3 point shooting in basketball, in observations of bomb locations in WWII London, and in music streaming services. We are primed to see patterns and causes, and we can construct them even when we shouldn’t. One contributing factor for incorrect pattern observation is that we tend to make post hoc conclusions, making observations after the fact without predicting what we might expect to see before hand.

 

Using the WWII example, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in the book Nudge show how people developed misconstructions of German bombing patterns in London during the war. The German bombing wasn’t precise, and there was no real pattern to the bombing raids and where bombs actually exploded across the city. Nevertheless, people mistakenly viewed a pattern in the random distribution of bombs. The authors describe the mistaken pattern identification by writing, “We often see patterns because we construct our informational tests only after looking at the evidence.”

 

People could map where bombs fell, and then create explanations for what targets the Germans were aiming at, for why the Germans would target a certain part of the city, and what strategic purpose the bombing was trying to accomplish. But these reasons are all post hoc constructions meant to satisfy a non-existent pattern that someone expected to find. We also see this in basketball, when a shooter makes a few baskets and is believed to have the hot hand or be on fire. In music streaming services, algorithms are actually tweaked to be less random, because listeners who hear two consecutive songs or more by the same band will assume the streaming isn’t randomizing the music, even though random chance will sometimes pick a string of songs from the same band or even from the same album.

 

The examples I mentioned in the previous paragraph are harmless cognitive errors stemming from poorly constructed post hoc explanations of phenomena.  However, post hoc conclusions based on non-existent patterns are important to consider because they can have real consequences in our lives and societies. If we are in a position to make important decisions for our families, our companies, or our communities, we should recognize that we possess the ability to be wildly wrong about observed patterns. It is important that we use better statistical techniques or listen to the experts who can honestly employ them to help us make decisions. We should not panic about meaningless stock market fluctuations and we should not incarcerate people based on poor crime statistic understandings. We should instead remember that our brains will look for patterns and find them even if they don’t actually exist. We should state assumptions before we make observations, rather than making post hoc conclusions on poor justifications for the patterns we want to see.
Rarely Stumped

Rarely Stumped

Daniel Kahneman starts one of the chapters in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by writing, “A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped. True, you occasionally face a question such as 17 × 24 = ? to which no answer comes immediately to mind, but these dumbfounded moments are rare. The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way.”

 

When I read this quote I am reminded of Gus, the father, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He is always ready to show how every word comes from a Greek root, even a Japanese word like kimono. He is sure of his intellect, sure that his heritage is perfect and is the foundation of all that is good in the world. He trusts his instincts and intuitions to a hilarious extent, even when he is clearly wrong and even when his decisions are gift-wrapped and planted in his mind in an almost Inception style.

 

His character is part caricature, but it is revealing of what Kahneman explains with the quote above. Our minds are good at finding intuitive answers that make sense of the world around us, even if we really don’t have any idea what is going on. We laugh at Gus and don’t consider ourselves to be guilty of behaving like him, but the only difference between most of us and Gus is that Gus is an exaggeration of the intuitive dogma and sense of self value and assurance that we all live with.

 

We scroll through social media, and trust that our initial judgment of a headline or post is the right frame for how to think about the issue. We are certain that our home remedy for tackling bug bites, cleaning windows, or curing a headache is based on sound science, even if it does nothing more than produce a placebo effect. We find a way to fit every aspect of our lives into a comprehensive framework where our decisions appear rational and justified, with us being the hero (or innocent victim if needed) of the story.

 

We should remember that we have a propensity to believe that we are always correct, that we are never stumped. We should pause, ask more questions, think about what is important to know before making a decision, and then deeply interrogate our thoughts to decide if we really have obtained meaningful information to inform our opinions, or if we are just acting on instinct, heuristics, self-interest, or out of groupthink. We cannot continue believing we are right, pushing baseless beliefs onto others when we have no real knowledge of an issue. We shouldn’t assume things are true just because they happen to align with the story we want to believe about ourselves and the world. When it comes to crucial issues and our interactions and relationships with others, we need to think more critically, and recognize when we are assuming we are right. If we can pause at those times and think more deeply, gather more information, ask more questions of our selves, we can have more accurate and honest interactions and relationships. Hopefully this will help us have more meaningful lives that better connect and better develop the community we all need in order to thrive.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of my Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform and shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and at best develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks as physicists try to understand quantum mechanics within the framework of physics laid out by Einstein and relativity. Throughout her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts within their own physics studies. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring this idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea is exactly the idea of social construction that I touched on in the opening note, but Gefter quotes a note in one of wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics,” which sounds a bit like social construction to me as someone who studies public policy.

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions in physics described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions such as how gravity works.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs the way we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspectives matter, when it comes to politics, science, and even physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to model, study, and experiment with our lives and the universe.

Reflecting Your Inner Self

Without self-awareness I have found that it is easy to fall into a place where my actions do not hold to the values that I profess to live by. Even with self-awareness, I have found that there are still times where my actions fall short of what I think should be my ideal. Occasionally I know what must be done in a situation, but I desire the opposite, am held back by fear, or I am just too lazy to take action. There are times when virtues truly stand out, and times when they don’t shine through. A quick quote from Cory Booker may help explain what is taking place within me during these times. “The wold you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you.”

My disconnect between my actions and thoughts is an example of my inner self being reflected on the outer world. I think my example branches away from what Booker’s quote truly hits at, but I think it is a useful place to start. Our actions show who we truly are inside, while our words and stories are used to tell ourselves and others what we want to hear. We may have ideals that we strive to live by and we may be able to inspire others with virtuous tales, but it is ultimately our decisions and actions that show who we truly are and what is truly important to us and driving our decisions.

Luckily for us (myself included) we can become more aware of our actions, reactions, thoughts, and habits to begin to change what we do and what it is within us that motivates and drives our behaviors. Focusing inward can show us what operating system has been guiding our lives. We can use reflection to examine our actions and determine whether we have actually been living up to the ideals we believe in. From this point we can begin to create change by first adjusting what is internal, creating an environment for what is external.

My other viewpoint on Booker’s quote, and I think the idea he was driving at more directly in his book United, relates to our perception of the world around us. A simple read of the quote is that if we are insecure in our life, we will see insecurities in the lives of others. If we are kind in our life, we will see kindness throughout the world.

Booker is sharing an idea that we perceive the world as a reflection of our inner character and opinions. We will somehow come to view the world the way we expect it. Our preconceived notions of the world, our biases, our desires, and other beliefs will be projected from inside our head onto the world we see and experience. If we choose to focus not on animosity but on love, we will see not just other people’s actions of love, but we will see where we can step in and be a force of positivity in the world. If we choose instead to be greedy and struggle for power out of hedonistic tendencies, then we will see others as motivated by the same forces, and we will see a word fraught with selfish competition.

Ultimately who we are inside is projected on to the world through our perceptions, and who we are inside is manifested in the world through our actions. Our internal values and goals shape the way we come to understand the world, which in tern shapes the way we act. We reflect our inner self through thoughts and actions.

Testing Our Assumptions

As I have worked on self awareness and worked to be a more understanding person capable of seeing the world from multiple perspectives, I have become more aware of my first impressions and snap judgments of other people. An important first step in becoming a more integrated person is recognizing the impulse thoughts we have about others and understanding where those thoughts come from.  Colin Wright in his book Considerations addresses this idea and drives it to an even deeper level. He examines the structure of the brain and out thoughts to understand why we have developed these impulse thoughts, and he challenges everyone to recognize and push back against these often times hidden beliefs (emphasis mine):

 

“Testing our assumptions is an excellent way to see the potential in things and people we wouldn’t otherwise stop to notice.  A person with a black plastic trash bag could be a lot of things, and it’s worth considering more than just your first impression if you intend to be an active participant in your environment, rather than just a passive experiencer.”

 

When I first started working on mindfulness and recognizing my thoughts about others, including my immediate reactions, I constantly felt discouraged by my negative reaction to people of other races or who appeared to be homeless or in poverty.  I would scold myself for having a negative initial judgement, and then worry that my initial thoughts bled over to my outward attitude and behavior.  What Wright explains in his book is that these types of instant reactions are evolutionary left overs from a time when we needed to make assumptions about our environment and react quickly to avoid wild animals that could kill and eat us.  Our quick reactions, memory, and pattern recognition saved our ancestors, but now those same traits get in our way.  The best approach to improve our behavior is to recognize these thoughts and accept that we make poor initial judgments. Once we identify our behavior we can work to challenge and change our reactions.

 

I am particularly struck by the last part of Wright’s quote.  It shows that in order to be fully integrated with our environment and to find real meaning through our impact in the world we must challenge our beliefs to push ourselves to grow and have stronger interactions and relationships with everyone in society. The more we challenge our knee-jerk reactions and the more we push ourselves to be involved with those who we normally would not interact with, the more we will be able to connect with the world. Those new connections will shape us and push us to a point where we no longer need to worry about a negative emotion being noticed by people who are different from us.