Thursday, April 19, 2012

Daniel Kahneman on cognitive biases--answering the easier question

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman devotes a chapter to the subject of "Answering An Easier Question".  This should explain itself just from the title alone but books must often be written because as a teacher of mine so eloquently put it, "Never underestimate the obvious."

You and I go through day after day jumping to conclusions and making judgments we never stop for a single single to analyze or reason through.  I like this song and I hate that song.  I hate the sound of that person's voice and I think that other person is smart.  Today I want radishes and garlic in my food while yesterday I wanted strawberries and oatmeal.  Why?  How am I supposed to know? 

Kahneman goes so far as to say that we often make assessments that we go with without even fully comprehending the evidence by which we came to the assessment. It is in this chapter that Kahneman discusses heuristics, which are simple processes the mind uses to provide adequate, if not fully reasoned, answers to challenges or tasks. He uses a number of examples to illustrate how substitution works and one example is that if you were asked how far so-and-so would make it in the primaries you would be iclined to answer the easier question of whether or not so-and-so has the qualities of a winning candidate.

To borrow a historical case it would have been easier for people in World War 2 German military branches to anticipate that the Allies were going to invade than to, say, invade at Normandy in particular. The outcome of that invasion, arguably, hinged on someone in the German war machine answering the easier question to a point satisfactory enough that Normandy was not more reinforced and dug in that it was.

Answering the simpler question often works just fine.  If you are presented with the question of whether or not to have this or that ice cream you can answer the question of whether or not you even want (or should) have ice crea mat all. Most of the time this process of substitution works fine. 

The trouble is that answering the simpler question can come at the price of not answering the most pressing question.  Answering the simpler question can also mislead the mind.  Kahneman uses a fun example in which spatial perception tricks the untrained viewer into thinking one figure is larger than another when all three figures in the illustration are actually the same size.  What happens is that the untrained viewer translates a two dimensional image into a three dimensional construct within the mind.  Knowing how to manipulate and guide this process is how cartoonists and animators can create countless drawings that, in sequence, convey a compelling sense of space and depth even though everything presented is two-dimensional.  The battle against Uncanny Valley is a constant one in which we humans attempt to close the distance between a perceptual process that works automatically in our minds and our ability to mimic the effects our mind can establish in an external form.  The reality is there may never ultimately be a day in which CGI will fool everybody all the time.  We can't be that confident.

Kahneman explains that substituting spatial perception for two-dimensional images is not the only substitution process.  He refers to a German study in which various students were asked two questions. The first was about how happy they were generally and the second was how many dates they had been on.  The two questions were asked in the two obvious permutations.  When asked first to assess happiness the students gave answers that turned out to have no correlation to the number of dates they had been on.  When the two questions were asked in such a way that the number of dates was followed by "how happy are you?" there began to be a correlation?  Why?  Well, one explanation is that the first question influenced the perception of the second.  Kahneman refers to this as the affect heuristic.  It's not that the students were sad overall because they didn't have many dates, they just reported being disappointed if they had not had the number of dates they wanted.

As Kahneman states it, and quite forcefully, "The dominance of conclusions over arguments is most pronounced where emotions are involved." Duh ... yet we must remember to not underestimate the obvious, right? If you were to ask whether or not the team or people you're hanging out with may be nasty or insular you might not answer the question based on a thorough examination of the entire culture and its history in one stroke.  You would, instead, simply ask, "Do I still feel like I fit in here?"  The answer then becomes very simple, yes or no. You could try to reason through everything, analyze everything you can and recognize that what you observe is not, in fact, everything to be known or observed about a topic ... but you won't be very likely to do that.  You've answered the simpler question in most cases and, having obtained a satisfactory answer, you settle into the ramifications of your conclusion.   That's the thing about cognitive biases.  Knowing what they are does not necessarily make you or me less susceptible to running on them.

The possibilities and applications of this observation, obvious though it may be, are only limited by what humans can do, eh?

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