Thinking We’re Thinking Is What’s Wrong!

20 04 2009

I’m elevating to post status this comment about ways to decide between competing college applicants:

I read [Crimson Wife’s] comment after finishing the Sunday NYT Week in Review stories — this for example, but pick anything because the whole section is about imperfect categorizing of our information and choices, one way or another.

My favorite might have been George Lucas re-categorizing Dick Cheney as NOT Darth Vader. 😉

I also read Natural Happiness and the real-world research of “decision scientists” in the NYT Magazine — if we can educate ourselves with better information about how our own brains and minds make such complex social decisions, and why, then maybe we can manage our own ambiguity and flailing about and wiring for failure?

CW, you might like Bono’s [ambiguous and almost poetic] piece on feeding soul and spirit individually, as society and an economy.

I was just getting ready to blog all this as educational Power of Story, and here you hand me a custom-made connection!

So no formula or algorithm is perfect, from the Dewey Decimal System to personalized ad software, to college admissions and business staffing decisions. OTOH, intuition, nepotism, corruption, guesswork or being too overwhelmed to function don’t work any better.

The overall findings suggest to me that no human decision-making process, by individuals only or groups only or any combination such as we use for parenting and culture, politics and policy, is ever really “natural” and “right” while all other approaches are manipulative, biased and wrong.

Each “has value” and also is “about values.” Which is both good and bad, functional and dysfunctional, at the same time in different applications, in various measure. Each has pros and cons, natural and hidden bias, etc.

There is a considerable mismatch between the world in which our minds evolved and our current existence. . . our minds were not adapted to cope with a world of billions of people. The life of a modern city dweller, surrounded by strangers, is an evolutionary novelty. . .

This history has left its mark on our minds. Children are irrepressible taxonomizers, placing the world of distinct individuals into categories based on their appearance, their patterns of movement and their presumed deeper natures. . .

Think of business managment and education administration decisions such as admissions, also all levels of government *including* church governance and its decision-making by individuals and groups.

Whatever one believes about the divine, it is clear that church governance is humans making decisions and thus imperfect, even as it promises and tries to deliver the reliable comfort of infallibility and tradition, definitions and ordering of knowledge, discernible identity and state of being.

(And historically, we know even scripture/gospel was selected, categorized and ordered by humans, with human biases and assumptions and uncertainties — so I’d argue the current research findings apply and can help us understand that better too, toward ultimate human goals.)

For example:

. . . as the United States and other nations look for lessons in the wreckage from the excesses of that period, political leaders are confronting uncertainty about what economic structures and values should define capitalism’s next chapter. Even before the current crisis, there were calls to rethink basic assumptions about the economy.

. . .Mr. Obama is stepping into the debate characteristically intent on avoiding polarizing labels, and his advisers describe his philosophy in terms of pragmatism rather than ideology. . . Mr. Obama, they said, simply wants a more stable economic model.

“It’s a strategy directed at having a somewhat different and healthier expansion than we’ve had in the past, driven by a sense that the expansion is likely to be more secure and its benefits more widely shared” . . .

But economic policy is never just technocratic, especially not when times are tough.

And this:

“What’s fascinating to people about torture is it gives one person absolute power over another, which is both alluring and corrupting,” said Dr. Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College.
Torture, like slavery, corrupts both individuals and societies . .

Senator John McCain, perhaps this country’s most famous torture victim, has often said about why the United States must not use it:
“It’s not about the terrorists,” he says. “It’s about us.”

. . .So far every new disclosure about the intimate brutality carried out in the name of national security has only provoked more questions.

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17 responses

20 04 2009
Crimson Wife

On the one hand, Amazon has seemed pretty “glitch-prone” lately. Back in February, I couldn’t get the search function on the site to find Bob Greene’s “Best Life Diet” book when I wanted to review it. I doubt that someone was deliberately trying to censor that, KWIM? On the other hand, this particular glitch did mainly affect books dealing with “hot button” issues so I can see why suspicions might be raised. Perhaps Amazon was testing a way for users to filter their searches based on their own personal criteria?

I can see the appeal of that kind of search filter. A social conservative could set it to filter out books dealing with homosexuality, an atheist could set it to filter out books promoting religion, and so on. So long as it’s the user setting the filtering criteria and not Amazon itself, would you really have a problem with that?

20 04 2009
COD

One could make an argument that it is socially irresponsible for Amazon to enable that kind of filtering. The last thing any of us needs is less exposure to ideas that challenge our personal status quo.

20 04 2009
JJ

Hey, none of that is my problem; I didn’t even know about the Amazon flap until I read this article.

MY problem remains the whole insidious meme (with any motive ideological, profit-driven or even parental) that misconstrues “freedom of choice” by limiting and obscuring rather than improving and expanding the quality and quantity of, and practical access to, one’s options.

That, and of course, bizarre conspiracy theories! 😉

20 04 2009
JJ

COD, we cross-posted — EXACTLY!!!!

20 04 2009
JJ

All this suggests a punny new political movement COD and I could start with a series of tax-onomy tea parties. . .

20 04 2009
Crimson Wife

Amazon is in the business of selling books, and anything that will improve their recommendations algorithm to increase sales is presumably on the table. Most folks are very unlikely to buy books that promote values they do not share. So why waste their time with recommendations for items in which they have no interest? If I were to make the choice to exclude books dealing with certain topics from my searches, I don’t see why that’s any different from deciding that I’m simply not going to watch any program on a particular television channel. There’s nothing wrong with self-censorship; it’s when the government uses its power to censor certain ideas that there becomes a problem.

20 04 2009
JJ

Is that how you choose your reading though, just by topic? I can’t even pick a meal or a movie that way, certainly not the best public policy or politician, etc.

I have a book for you to check out, CW — from Amazon! — The Connoisseur’s Guide to the Mind by early artificial intelligence expert Roger Schank. It’s basically just about ordering food and wine, what a complex series of decisions and queries and “scripts” it involves, and the more you know and the more you care, the more complex a decision-making process it is to get right.

And you keep learning even (especially!) when it’s not what you thought you were getting, or wanted. 🙂

20 04 2009
JJ

Some quotes from the book offered by a reader-reviewer:

In the Connoisseur’s Guide to the Mind, Roger Shank uses his love of great food to teach us about how human beings learn and think, primarily through the process of remembering and indexing:

“If everything happens the way you expected it to happen, you may well be happy, but you won’t learn a thing. To learn we need expectation failure. Further, we need expectation failure we can cope with. The failures have to be small rather than large.” (p.153)

“All important knowledge is in the form of expectations.” (p.50)

“Learning occurs when we cannot fill a slot with what has usually filled that slot, or when we cannot even determine what slots need to be filled, or when we cannot determine what mental structure should be available to provide slots to fill.” (p.52)

“We must evaluate our experiences in terms of what we can learn from them in order to learn from them. Remembering *everything* actually prevents you from concentrating on what can be learned…

We have a major problem, therefore, when we begin to learn something new. We must alter our knowledge base by adding what we are now processing to what we already know. But where exactly do we add the new information? Where does a new episode belong?” (pgs 74-75)

21 04 2009
Nance Confer

But Amazon is not the government. Not sure why it is anybody’s business how they decide to market their products. Aside from whether or not you decide to shop there.

Nance

21 04 2009
Crimson Wife

I enjoyed Dr. Schank’s book Coloring Outside the Lines so I’ll have to check whether my library can get a copy of the other book through ILL. Why is it that I add books to my “to read” queue faster than I can cross them off, LOL?

21 04 2009
JJ

Me too! And you should see the pile by my bed waiting for attention.

Today at FavD’s voice lesson I dipped into “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer (he wrote “Proust was a Neuroscientist” too)– smack-dab in the middle of a chapter all about dopamine and how it’s the key to all learning, again by mistaken expectation as the main mechanism, and below the conscious level almost always. Just fascinating stuff. I feel like my old education degrees are useless if not the equivalent of alchemy, without knowing all this that’s been discovered since . . .

22 04 2009
JJ

Another way torture is medieval and brutal — it’s midwifed by ignorance.

23 04 2009
JJ

And never mind the ignorant, ideological and evil. The intelligent, well-educated and well-intended can get screwed up by the very choices and decision-making roles we think we want and work so hard to create.

See “The Paradox of Choice” reviewed by Christopher Caldwell for New Yorker Magazine:

“The world I am trying to understand . . .is one in which men think they want one thing and then upon getting it, find out to their dismay that they don’t want it nearly as much as they thought or don’t want it at all and that something else, of which they were hardly aware, is what they really want.”

. . .In the real world, neither people nor firms maximize utility. Life is complicated, the options of the marketplace are numerous, and the human intellect is frail.

. . .Schwartz looks at the particular patterns of our irrationality, relying on the sort of research pioneered by two Israeli-American psychologists. . .
It turns out, for instance, that people will often consciously choose against their own happiness.

. . . Sixty-two per cent said they’d be happier in the latter case, but eighty-four per cent said they’d choose the former. Research . . . has unearthed a number of conundrums around choice.

. . .Nor is the “paradox of choice” limited to the shopping aisle. It helps explain why so many people at age thirty are still flailing about,
trying to choose a career—and why so many marriageable singles wind up alone. . .

A central problem of choice is what Wilson and Gilbert call “miswanting.” Wanting, in their definition, is “a prediction of liking.” Predictions are often biased, and predictions of one’s feelings are more biased than most.

Current preferences “contaminate” future plans—so
that, on weekly trips to the supermarket, customers who have just eaten
tend to buy too little food, and hungry ones too much. You might try to
draw on experience to help you choose, but your memories aren’t to be
trusted. . .

Given that we’re so bad at choosing what will make us happy, we seem to be faced with two options: mending the way we choose, or limiting our choices.

23 04 2009
Crimson Wife

I took a really interesting cognitive science class from Amos Tversky in college- what a shame that his life was tragically cut short by melanoma 😦

23 04 2009
JJ

I’m guessing your college classes were a lot more recent than mine, CW. I doubt the phrase cognitive science had been coined when I was in school.

(Okay, I’m such a curious geek, after I typed that, I had to go Google it — 1973.)

23 04 2009
Crimson Wife

But when I graduated Google was still being run out of a garage…

23 04 2009
JJ

Touche. 😀

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