Selective Attention

I listened to an episode of the After On podcast this last week, and the guest, Dr. Don Hoffman, suggested that our brains did not evolve to help us understand reality, but evolved to help us survive, which often did not require that our ancestors have the most accurate view of reality but instead had the perceptions necessary to avoid lions, work as a tribe, and pick healthy berries. What we see when we look around us is only a small fraction of the world, our eyes are only able to perceive a rather narrow range of electromagnetic radiation (light). With the fact that our brains did not evolve to give us the most clear picture of reality and with our inability to fully perceive all of reality, we must remember that there are reasons to be skeptical of the thoughts produced by our brain.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, author Colin Wright discusses the outcomes of our brains cognitive shortcomings. He writes, “This tendency to pay more attention to the seeming unlikely events that happen to and around us is called “selective attention.” Our brains have a bias toward patterns, and ignore so called uninteresting data…” Wright suggests that this is part of the reason our brains our so bad at statistical thinking as I described yesterday. Statistics is hard because we selectively pick out certain things as important and have a distorted memory of the world based on what we happened to see and notice. Wright continues describing what this means for us, “Which in turn result in our finding meaning in what is almost certainly meaningless…familiarity and feeling of significance is merely the consequence of our brains wigging out over the perceived connection, due to its pattern-finding predilections. Because that’s what it does.”

 

When we recognize that we did not evolve to develop a perfect view of what is happening around us and that our brains only selectively record a small chunk of reality, we can begin to think about how approach the world. We know our brains look for patterns and behave quickly, but that the patterns the brain picks out might not be fully correct or meaningful. We don’t have to eat Pringles every time our team is in the playoffs, because we are aware that our brain is making a false connection between us eating specific chips and our favorite team winning based on a perception that doesn’t really exist. What I am ultimately getting at is that our brains can invent realities that seem reasonable, but are based on cognitive errors, selective attention, and don’t actually align with the physical reality of the universe. We make sense out of meaningless things around us and start to attach symbolic importance to things that should not have any importance in our lives.

 

This distorted reality may not be a problem at an individual level with how any of us move through our lives. No one is going to care too much if you believe you need to drink a specific coffee every morning or sit in a specific spot, but as this mode of thinking scales up to a societal level, we must recognize that beliefs resulting from cognitive bias and error can lead to a world that doesn’t operate equitably for all members of society. Public policy must be grounded in the best empirical science and data that we can collect (even if our interpretation of the data is always going to be imperfect) so that we can distribute our finite resources in a reasonable way, and we must cut through our false narratives to avoid stigmatizing groups and discriminating against people who see the world differently from us.

Attribution Bias

Our brains are pretty impressive pattern recognition machines. We take in a lot of information about the world around us, remember stories, pull information together to form new thoughts and insights, move through the world based on the information we take in, and we are able to predict the results of actions before they have occurred. Our brain evolved to help us navigate a complex, dangerous, and uncertain world.

 

Today however, while our world is arguably more complex and uncertain than ever, it might not be as dangerous on a general day to day basis. I’m pretty sure I won’t encounter any animals who may try to eat me when I sit at the park to read during my lunch break, I won’t need to distinguish between two types of berries to make sure I don’t eat the poison kind, and if the thunder storms scheduled for this evening drop golf ball sized hail, I won’t have to worry to much about where I will find safety and shelter. Nevertheless, my evolved brain is still going to approach the world as if it were the dangerous place it was when my ancestors were evolving their thought capacities, and that will throw some monkey-wrenches into my life and lead to me to see patterns that don’t really exist.

 

Colin Wright has a great quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. He writes, “You ascribe meaning to that person’s actions through the lens of what’s called “attribution bias.” If you’re annoyed by their slow driving, that inferred meaning will probably not be generous to the other driver: they’re a bad person, they’re in the way, and they’re doing this because they’re stupid or incapable. That these assumptions about the situation are possibly incorrect – maybe they’re driving slowly because thy’re in deep thought about elephant tool usage – is irrelevant. Ascribing meaning to acts unto itself is impressive, even if we often fail to arrive at a correct, or fully correct understanding of the situation.”

 

We often find ourselves in situations that are random and try to ascribe a greater meaning to the situation or event we are in. At least in the United States, it is incredibly common to hear people say that everything happens for a reason, creating a story for themselves in which this moment of inconvenience is part of a larger story filled with lessons, staircases, detours, success, and failure that are all supposed to culminate in a larger narrative that will one day all make sense. The fact that this way of thinking is so prevalent suggests to me that the power of our pattern recognition focused brains is still in full swing even though we no longer need it to be as active in as many situations of our life. We don’t need every moment of our life to happen for a reason, and if we allow for randomness and eliminate the running narrative of our life, we don’t have to work through challenging apologetics to understand something negative.

 

Attribution bias as described by Wright shows us how wrong our brain can be about the world. It shows us that our brains have certain tendencies that elevate ourselves in thought over the rest of the world that doesn’t conform to our desires, interests, wishes, and preferences. It reveals that we are using parts of our brains that evolved to help our ancestors in ways that we now understand to be irrational. If we can see that the slow person driving in front of us with a political sticker that makes our blood boil is not all the terrible things we instantly think they are (that instead they are a 75 year-old grandfather driving in a new town trying to get to the hospital where his child is sick) then we can recognize that not everything in life has a meaning, or at least not the meaning that our narrow pattern recognizing brain wants to ascribe. Remembering this mental bias and making an effort to recognize this type of thinking and move in a more generous thought direction will help us move through the world with less friction, anger, and disappointment because we won’t develop false patterns that let us down when they fail to materialize in the outcomes we expected.