Saturday, October 22, 2011

Another map of the human mind...helping us to discover who we are...

 Daniel Kahneman is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is also Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University, and a fellow of the Center for Rationality at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Kahneman has held the position of professor of psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1970-1978), the University of British Columbia (1978-1986), and the University of California, Berkeley (1986-1994). Dr. Kahneman is a member of the National Academy of Science, the Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, and the Econometric Society. He has been the recipient of many awards, among them the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association (1982) and the Grawemeyer Prize (2002), both jointly with Amos Tversky, the Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists (1995), the Hilgard Award for Career Contributions to General Psychology (1995), the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (2002), and the Lifetime Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association (2007). Dr. Kahneman holds honorary degrees from numerous Universities.
His new book Thinking Fast and Slow was recently released.
From David Brooks' column, New York Times, October 21, 2011
Before Kahneman and Tversky (his research associate), people who thought about social problems and human behavior tended to assume that we are mostly rational agents. They assumed that people have control over the most important parts of their own thinking. They assumed that people are basically sensible utility-maximizers and that when they depart from reason it’s because some passion like fear or love has distorted their judgment.

Kahneman and Tversky conducted experiments. They proved that actual human behavior often deviates from the old models and that the flaws are not just in the passions but in the machinery of cognition. They demonstrated that people rely on unconscious biases and rules of thumb to navigate the world, for good and ill. Many of these biases have become famous: priming, framing, loss-aversion.
Kahneman reports on some delightful recent illustrations from other researchers. Pro golfers putt more accurately from all distances when putting for par than when putting for birdie because they fear the bogie more than they desire the birdie. Israeli parole boards grant parole to about 35 percent of the prisoners they see, except when they hear a case in the hour just after mealtime. In those cases, they grant parole 65 percent of the time. Shoppers will buy many more cans of soup if you put a sign atop the display that reads “Limit 12 per customer.”
Kahneman and Tversky were not given to broad claims. But the work they and others did led to the reappreciation of several old big ideas:
We are dual process thinkers. We have two interrelated systems running in our heads. One is slow, deliberate and arduous (our conscious reasoning). The other is fast, associative, automatic and supple (our unconscious pattern recognition). There is now a complex debate over the relative strengths and weaknesses of these two systems. In popular terms, think of it as the debate between “Moneyball” (look at the data) and “Blink” (go with your intuition).
We are not blank slates. All humans seem to share similar sets of biases. There is such a thing as universal human nature. The trick is to understand the universals and how tightly or loosely they tie us down.
We are players in a game we don’t understand. Most of our own thinking is below awareness. Fifty years ago, people may have assumed we are captains of our own ships, but, in fact, our behavior is often aroused by context in ways we can’t see. Our biases frequently cause us to want the wrong things. Our perceptions and memories are slippery, especially about our own mental states. Our free will is bounded. We have much less control over ourselves than we thought.
This research yielded a different vision of human nature and a different set of debates. The work of Kahneman and Tversky was a crucial pivot point in the way we see ourselves.
They also figured out ways to navigate around our shortcomings. Kahneman champions the idea of “adversarial collaboration” — when studying something, work with people you disagree with. Tversky had a wise maxim: “Let us take what the terrain gives.” Don’t overreach. Understand what your circumstances are offering.
Many people are exploring the inner wilderness. Kahneman and Tversky are like the Lewis and Clark of the mind.
There are a myriad of "maps of the mind" in the literature. From Edward de Bono's many-coloured hats, to the Emotional Intelligence of Gardiner, to the world of both Freud and Jung introducing the unconscious, to the work of Kaheman and Tversky with their dual process thinking systems. Interestingly, no single map, and no compilation of maps permits a total comprehension of the human "brain" let alone the human "mind." In fact, cognition itself, gives us a limited picture of human mental processes.
Moneyball (look at the data) and Blink (go with your gut) are two simplistic ways of capturing the essence of these two processes.
It is the attention to the biases, perceptions and memory...all of them important and all of them less "clearly defined" than we might actually believe, or wish they were...that is attractive.
Designing systems, within or outside of the mind, is a human fascination that is not likely to abate any time soon. It focuses the researcher on framing experiences, questions and thereby answers and responses that can be studied, in terms of predictability, reliability in order to generate a theory, a thesis perhaps for a degree or a book for public consumption. The academic universe depends on such generation, given the "publish or perish" dogma that has ruled universities for at least a century.
In reference to Brooks' piece, let us remember that Lewis and Clarke's maping focused on a relatively small part of North American territory, not a criticism, but if I wanted to learn about the southeastern part of the U.S., for example, they would not be a very appropriate guide.
It is our capacity to acknowledge, analyse, dissect, refute and debate the ideas of all researchers that prevents each of them from becoming another "guru" and thereby becoming victim of their own success. While we read the work of these two thinkers, let's keep our own detachment, scepticism and capacity to push back, as, no doubt, they would welcome.


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