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Sunday, 23 March 2014

Cognitive Bias

In my blog about the concepts that underlie the Prometheus Syndrome, I mentioned the values and beliefs that are the constituents of what is called a paradigm, and that these aspects are hidden, tacit, and taken for granted. Most people who adhere to a paradigm (and everyone does) are not aware of these hidden aspects (the hidden chains). And when people within a paradigm encounter someone that challenges these hidden beliefs and values, people tend to become angry, and resort, in the mildest of circumstances, to dismissing this strange person as being heretical, as lacking in right-mindedness, as someone suffering from a deficit. In more extreme situations the adherents to the faith (the paradigm) become extremists and some then resort to violence and persecution to silence the heretics. These paradigms (faiths) come in many different forms, but the ones of most interest to me at the moment, are the faith systems called science, engineering and technology, along with the rather strange values and beliefs that are part of these faiths.

And so it is that those people who participate in, so called independent and unbiased studies and reviews, do in fact bring to these exercises, a lot of hidden baggage in the forms of values, beliefs and taken for granted assumptions. That such people think themselves to be independent and unbiased, also demonstrates another feature of paradigms, that of delusion, both individual and collective, which is a key trait of human behaviour, as most know, for this is what the tale of the emperor’s new clothes is about. And the belief that we (all of us) are unbiased is a delusion, and for this there is scientific evidence. What I am referring to here is over 40 years worth of research by cognitive scientists that relates to the topic known as cognitive bias.

I watched a very interesting science programme on BBC 1 a few weeks back about how we really think. The message from the psychologists is that the rational part of our minds is not the star of the show as they put it, only it thinks that it is. One psychologist said that humans are suffering from the delusion that they are rational. Most of the time, an irrational rapid response system takes decisions without thinking, but we are not aware of this. A common feature is to base a decision on previous ones, even though these might have nothing to do with the current decision. The result is we make a lot of mistakes. Worse though is that we do not recognise that the auto system is taking the wrong decisions, and the rational part of the mind, which is slow relative to the fast part, then makes up rational explanations for the decisions, and these explanations do not always correspond to the real reasons.

I found this fascinating for it links to what I have observed over past 35 years and also what I wrote about in the blog entry about the Prometheus Syndrome and what is also said in my 1994 book on Agile Manufacturing.

An interesting discovery is that some other primates also display the same biased behaviour, hence the conclusion that this is an evolutionary adaptation, hence it is built into our DNA. This is also a conclusion I had already come to many years ago when I started to think about why the many people who I encounter rarely think about what needs to be done, and just assume that what worked in the past is still relevant. And this is the conclusion that I came to:

Imaging this; it is the age of the hunter-gatherer and you are out hunting for food in an environment where there are other humans out hunting as well, along with other humanoids. Past experience of encounters with humans and humanoids points to one conclusion – that they are dangerous. But these are not the only risks that you face, for out hunting are wild animals, some of which are very dangerous, and you are on the menu. In such circumstances you do not have time to rationally analyse everything that confronts you, hence automatic decision making that is based what worked in the past is your best option for survival. And here in the 21st century we are still doing the same even though it is no longer appropriate – we are truly chained to the past, by virtue of our DNA, and most of us do not realise we are doing this. Thus it is that, what once helped ensure our survival as a species, now works towards our demise.

The conclusion of the psychologists is that we need to change our institutions, working methods, regulation frameworks, policy making processes, etc. to take account of cognitive bias. I fully agree with this, which is one of the reasons I fully support upstream public engagement in science, engineering and technology, so that all these values, biases, etc. can be brought out into the open, and organisations like the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering can be positioned where they belong, as being representatives of a paradigm. Clearly we also need to set-up a truly independent means of undertaking upstream public engagement – independent of government, and all those other bodies that like to think of themselves as being independent, unbiased etc.

In relation to the matter of sustainability, cognitive biases is also part of the reasons why people tend to assume that we should be engaging in morphostatic change (in some mysterious way we can make what we have today sustainable through small adjustments), when we should actually be engaging in morphogenic change (reinventing our world). This bias towards incremental improvements can be seen as a systematic error resulting from cognitive bias.

The path to change, starts with the realisation that we are participating in delusions, and that we are not unbiased, and that all we do is determined by hidden factors, and often, in the end, we make a lot of bad decisions, and then post rationalise these to fit with are deluded understandings of ourselves – that we are independent, rational, unbiased, only concerned with facts and evidence …

Understanding this is one of the key steps towards the development of sustainability, the achievement of which will be based on behavioural change. And this is the message underlying my two new books: Enigma and Moments in Time.

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