19 November 2012

How much do we think?

Recently I was in the position to explain what decision making psychology is about and how psychology can give very valuable insights to management and, in the end, to each and every one of us. What I found to be most challenging was that the people with whom I spoke knew virtually nothing about this area of knowledge and I was in the position to start my explanation from zero.

The truth is that anyone who wants to explain human behavior and decision making from the psychology perspective does not start from zero; in fact she starts from a very big minus. The reason for this back-start is that a lot of human culture is based on one major assumption, namely that humans are some sort of perfect intellectual machines with infinite resources available.

Early in life we are taught that we must make good decisions and behave well. Virtually every person who has gone through school has learned basic economics principles and has been subjected to rewards and punishments (or “carrots and sticks”). Everyone who had some religious education has learned about the famous “Free will” that God gave humans and that each human can exercise it. Most people judge other people’s actions as products of their “character” or as psychologists like to call “personality traits”. We all have heard things like “He is a bad person” or “He is virtuous”.

With the risk of repeating myself, we believe that the human is a “super creature with infinite intellectual capabilities and infinite resources available” and that everything one does is only due to his or her character.

Normally I should start challenging these beliefs right about now, but I’ll exercise “free will” and not do that. I have to acknowledge that humans are fantastic creatures and our intellectual capabilities are far beyond those of any other species on this planet. Humans have built superb pieces of architecture that lasted for hundreds or even thousands of years. Humans have built astonishing pieces of infrastructure that defy the powers of nature … after all I live in an area that is below sea level and that is protected by the famous Delta Works.

All these “wonders” of human civilization are the expression of human rationality, our unique intellectual ability to reason or to think (if we equate thinking in the popular sense with reasoning).

What is special about these magnificent expressions of human intellectual capabilities of reasoning is the context in which they were built and the processes of planning and execution. As a general rule, we can accept that the people who have designed and executed these marvels were quite smart, were educated and spent a lot of time and effort on doing their work. Even if we don’t actually realize it, we can all agree that behind these proofs of human rationality there are hundreds of thousands of hard work man-hours. The engineers that have designed the DeltaWorks (for example) have spent many long days of maximum concentration work. Computations assisted by computers or simply done with the old-fashioned pen and paper are the basis of such wonders. Extended information on the natural conditions, knowledge on construction materials, measurements, simulations and critical reviews by other engineers, feed-back and so on have played huge roles in making these wonders come true.

In my view, the process of engineering design is the best expression of human rationality. At the same time, we have to accept that these instances of perfect reasoning are special and rare. Most of our human day to day life is extremely different from the work day of a team of engineers. In general we do not have “full information” either because it is not available or simply we don’t bother to get it. Even if we would bother to get “full information” is it actually possible to hold “All the relevant information”? What is the “relevant” information? Moreover, each day we make countless decisions and holding “full information” about all of them would be overwhelming.

Another characteristic of regular decision making is that we don’t have infinite time resources to be able to (slowly) think it through. How much time do you spend in a supermarket? How much time to you think about what you buy? How much time do you think about what TV program to watch? Probably the answers are “not very much”.

Most of our decisions are fast and we don’t use our cognitive abilities to the maximum when we make them.

Another assumption of popular culture on thinking is that we have infinite resources. If we agree that the brain is the biggest consumer of energy resources, then we realize that thinking (reasoning) is effortful and our energy resources are limited. Probably you have experienced a day when you didn’t get off the chair, but you were exhausted. How much energy you have left for good decisions in the supermarket after such a day? Probably the answer is something close to zero. The main idea is that reasoning is very costly in terms of energy resources and we have “only so much” of them.

The next characteristic of the assumption that humans are some kind of mega-computers is that we have unlimited self-control or as some people call it “Free will”. It is very nice to think about yourself that you can do anything you want by exercising free will, but it is at least inaccurate. Self-control is also energy consuming and again we have “only so much” of it. Self-control is very important in human life and especially in human relations, but we do not have infinite resources of it. You might exert self-control and not say to your boss that he is an “ass …le” and when your working day is done just go to a (Chinese or fast food) restaurant and blow off your diet.

Character is another of popular culture’s presumed causes for human behavior and to a certain extent it actually is. A lot of work in psychology was and is done on personality (traits) and its influences on behavior. Most of human society functions on a basis of selection rutted in personality traits. The most common personality trait is intelligence (IQ) and a huge part of (higher) education admission criteria and job selection is focused on getting the smartest people available. At the same time, we have to agree that even smart people do stupid things.

Indeed personality is important, but it is by far not the only thing that causes human behavior. Environmental factors are even more important than personality. Bodily states are sometimes more powerful than personality traits. Even the most conscientious person might behave sloppy if she is hungry or sexually aroused.

Expanding a bit on bodily states, we like to think that the brain controls the body, but it is not exactly so. The body also influences the brain and in turn this leads to influences on decisions.

To come close to a conclusion, I guess that the most challenging thing is to accept that our rationality is (severely) bounded and most importantly that “reasoning” is not the default functioning way of our brain. The cause of this challenge is that we have an inherent need to “feel good about ourselves”. Because we need to feel good about ourselves we think that the reasoning part of us is in control, that you are in control of your actions and that other people’s actions are under their control.

A nice example of the need of “feeling good about ourselves” is justifying our actions to others and most importantly to ourselves. When someone does something bad such as cheating that someone will cheat only to the extent that she can justify her actions. For example: “I did not steal 10 euros from the company I’m working for, I just brought home a stapler and some printing paper”. If someone would do a survey in a prison she would be surprised (or not) that most people will say that they are in fact innocent.

We need to justify our actions so that we feel good about ourselves and in the end be able to live with ourselves. However, justifiability is one thing; (rational cold) reasoning is another.

I’ll conclude this post with a quote from one of the webinars from brainjuicer: “We think a lot less than we like to think we think”.

Accepting this is a source of unease and (psychological) discomfort. At the same time, those who do not welcome discomfort will not progress. 

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