Joaquina (Jo) Pires-O’Brien
Man has a number of defining traits that are present in every human society, irrespective of their level of advancement. These defining traits, which are referred to as ‘universals’, is what define or characterize human nature. Perhaps the two most important universals of man are the ability to think rationally and the proclivity to form societies.
Certain universals are conducive to populism and are easily manipulated by populists. An example of that is cognitive bias, a systematic error that often results from our brain’s attempt to simplify the way we process information. As I stressed in a previous post (Why populism is die-hard), populism is a two-sided coin, with the head of a demagogue in one side and the wreath of direct democracy on the other. Direct democracy is a totalistic and repressive regime, for it lacks the system of checks and balances that is necessary for a fair system of governance. The antidote to populism must me sought in education, especially in the knowledge of history and human nature.
Man’s ability to think rationally, and to remember and learn new things, comes from some 100 billion neurons located mainly on the cerebral cortex of the brain, which together with the spinal cord makes our ‘central nervous system’. Man`s large cerebral cortex evolved in parallel with the more ancient nervous system that all animal have, which is referred to as ‘peripheral nervous system’. While the cerebral cortex is responsible for man’s cognitive functions, the peripheral nervous system, which consists of 12 pairs of cranial nerves and 31 pairs of spinal nerves, is responsible for our motor control as well as for our senses such as smell, taste, vision and hearing.
The fact that man’s actions are guided either by the central or the peripheral nervous system caught the attention of two eminent Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman (1934 -) and Amos Tversky (1937-1996) at the last quarter of the 20th century. They demonstrated that the peripheral nervous system is responsible for man’s fast thinking, while the central nervous system is responsible for man’s slow thinking, referring to these two systems as System 1 and System 2. They also slowed that System 1 is often unconscious, and that System 2 is always conscious. Kahneman and Tversky spent many decades studying the System 1 and System 2 of thinking, even after Tversky left the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they both taught, and moved to Stanford University in 1978. Kahneman was able to spend many sabbaticals as a visiting professor in various universities in the United States. After Tversky’s death in 1996, at age 59, Kahneman carried on with their research, and in 2002 he received the Nobel Prize in economics (shared with Vernon L. Smith), for his contribution to the field of behavioural economics. Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which became a best seller, explains to the general public the research that he and Tversky carried out. Here is how Kahneman explains man’s two systems of thinking:
System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” (20).
System 2 ”allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentrations” (21).
As Kahneman stresses in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it is unwise to accept without question the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, as well as our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, for our brain is prone to cognitive bias, the tendency to favour information that conforms to one’s existing beliefs and to discount evidence that does not conform.
The research of Kahneman and Tversky is also relevant to political science, where it can explains why voters do not always chose the best candidate. Populists know that people are normally thrilled in hearing something that confirms what they believe. Cognitive bias is a universal trait in man. It is an important reason why populists get away with their dishonest tactics. The intelligent way to fight populism is by educating voters not only about history but also about human nature, especially the pitfalls of cognitive bias.
PostScript. As psychologists have shown, our cognitive biases are pitfalls of error and bad judgement. Here are some of the most important types of cognitive biases:
- Confirmation Bias: This is favouring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform.
- Availability Heuristic: This is placing greater value on information that comes to your mind quickly. You give greater credence to this information and tend to overestimate the probability and likelihood of similar things happening in the future.
- Halo Effect: Your overall impression of a person influences how you feel and think about his or her character. This especially applies to physical attractiveness influencing how you rate their other qualities.
- Self-Serving Bias: This is the tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen and give yourself credit when good things happen. When you win a poker hand it is due to your skill at reading the other players and knowing the odds, while when you lose it is due to getting dealt a poor hand.
- Attentional Bias: This is the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. When making a decision on which car to buy, you may pay attention to the look and feel of the exterior and interior, but ignore the safety record and gas mileage.
- Actor-Observer Bias: This is the tendency to attribute your own actions to external causes while attributing other people’s behaviours to internal causes. You attribute your high cholesterol level to genetics while you consider others to have a high level due to poor diet and lack of exercise.
- Functional Fixedness: This is the tendency to see objects as only working in a particular way. If you don’t have a hammer, you never consider that a big wrench can also be used to drive a nail into the wall. You may think you don’t need thumbtacks because you have no corkboard on which to tack things, but not consider their other uses. This could extend to people’s functions, such as not realizing a personal assistant has skills to be in a leadership role.
- Anchoring Bias: This is the tendency to rely too heavily on the very first piece of information you learn. If you learn the average price for a car is a certain value, you will think any amount below that is a good deal, perhaps not searching for better deals. You can use this bias to set the expectations of others by putting the first information on the table for consideration.
- Misinformation Effect: This is the tendency for post-event information to interfere with the memory of the original event. It is easy to have your memory influenced by what you hear about the event from others. Knowledge of this effect has led to a mistrust of eyewitness information.
- False Consensus Effect: This is the tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with you.
- Optimism Bias: This bias leads you to believe that you are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than your peers.
(Taken from a psychology site)
Jo Pires-O`Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a magazine for the Iberian culture.