Posts Tagged ‘cognitive illusions’

Decisions: Focusing Illusions

August 17, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Nobel Winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman is among the developers of “bounded rationality”. To choices concerning quality of life, we are reasonable-enough beings but sometimes liable to focus on the wrong things. Our thinking gets befuddled not so much by our emotions as by our “cognitive illusions,’ or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.

Kahneman makes a distinction between two concepts of self. There is our hands-on “experiencing self,” which concentrates on just plain being in the here and now, is absorbed in whatever is going on and how you feel about it without doing much analysis. However, our evaluative “remembering self,” looks back on an experience, focuses on its emotional high points and outcomes, then formulates thoughts about it, not always accurately. Much research shows that memory is biased and unpredictable—more like a patchwork quilt than the seamless tapestry of reality we likely imagine. We don’t so much recall something that happened as reconstruct a facsimile of it. This mental artifact is likely to be either more positive or negative in tone than was the actual event.

The differences in how our experiencing and remembering selves pay attention to may account for seeing paradoxes in our lives. For example, most subjects say that having children is one of life’s greatest satisfactions. But subjects’ diaries show that actual roll-up-your-sleeves parenting was among women’s least enjoyable activities. This apparent contradiction and others likely are explained by the divergent focuses of a person’s two selves. The experiencing self of a tired woman who’s contemplating the wreckage of her slovenly adolescent’s room might well give mothering a poor rating at the moment. However, if parenthood comes up later at a party, her remembering self zeroes in its emotional highs and long term results—that sweet poem on Mother’s Day, the soccer trophy, the college diploma.—rather than on momentary vexations like dirty socks and old pizza crusts. It’s just as well for their progeny that when adults make choices about how to live, they pay more attention to the remembering self’s judgmental voice than to the experiencing self’s “whispers, which say more about their own daily satisfactions.

In a much cited example of the focusing illusion, Kahneman asked some people if they would be happier if they lived in California. Most people thought so because of the climate. Californians assume they’re happier than people who live elsewhere. However, when Kahneman actually measured their well-being, Michiganders and others are just as contented as Californians. The reason is that 99% of the stuff of life, relationships, work, home, recreation, is the same no matter where you are, and once you settle in a place, no matter how salubrious, you don’t think about its climate very much. However, when prompted to evaluate it, the weather immediately looms large, simply because you’re paying attention to it. The illusion inclines you to accentuate the difference between Place A and Place B, making it seem to matter much more than it really does, which is marginal.

Because our remembering self pays attention to our thoughts about our life, rather than to the life itself, it can be difficult to evaluate the quality of our own experience accurately . Social psychologist Norman Schwartz asked one group of subjects, “How much pleasure do you get from your car? Not surprisingly, there was a significant correlation between an autos value and its owner’s perceived enjoyment, so that the remembering selves of BMW and Lexus drivers were more satisfied than those of people who drove Escorts and Camry’s. Then Schwarz probed the immediate reality of the experiencing self by asking another group of subjects a different question: ”How much pleasure did you get from using your car today?” The correlation between the owners’ satisfaction and their cars’ worth vanished. What determined their answers was not the quality or price of their vehicles but of their actual commute that day: whether it was marked by good or bad weather, traffic conditions, or even personal ruminations— in short the experiencing self’s quotidian ups and downs.

The focusing illusion predicts that we’ll exaggerate the importance of a thing just by thinking it about it, as when we ponder a big purchase. Kahneman says, There’s probably much less focusing illusion with pleasures like fresh flowers or a glass of wine.” Because it gives you more fun and bang for you buck, spending five hundred dollars a year on bouquets or Burgundy is a better investment in your well-being than upgrading a major appliance.

Based on recent research on well-being, Kahneman says, “I can imagine a future in which, just as many of us exercise physically, we’ll also exercise mentally for twenty or thirty minutes a day. That’s the kind of world ‘positive psychology’ is looking for. Whether its principles work or not in the long run, I don’t know. All the data aren’t in yet. But it’s clear that getting people to pay attention is a good thing. There’s no question about that.”

As to the ability to focus on this rather than on that gives you control over our experience and well-being, Kahneman says that both the Dalai Lamai and positive psychologist Martin Seligman would agree about the importance of paying attention: “Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”

Cognitive Science Should Be Taught in Elementary School

August 30, 2016

For a long time, HM thought that the study of psychology should be put off until college.  However, he has recently come to the opinion that certain parts of human cognition should be taught as soon as possible.  This would provide some insight for the students in to how they think and learn.  The importance of focus and attention, and the fact that bias is inherent to our thinking.

Students likely think of their memory as something they need to use to past tests.  What they need to understand is that their memory is a machine for time travel.  They use it not just to remember stuff for tests, but as a means of searching what they have learned and experience in the past, to decide what to do in the future.  In other words, it goes far beyond remembering stuff for tests.

Information gets into our memories from our senses.  What we perceive  is limited by what we can sense.  Color, for example, does not exist in the external world.  Color is created by what our eyes can sense.  People who have different kinds of color blindness are limited by the absence of specific color sensing sensors (cones).

Our brains process these inputs and create internal models of what exists in the world.  Optical illusions provide good examples of what we think we see may not be accurate.  There are also cognitive illusions when what we think does not correspond to reality.  Essentially learning is a process of building better and better cognitive models.  As the result of learning we are able to refine and correct our cognitive models.  But this requires thinking and thinking requires attention.  Usually when we do not remember, it is due to our not paying attention in the first place.  So, paying attention in class is important for effective learning.  Students would learn not only how we make decisions and solve problems, but also better ways to make decisions and solve problems.

They would also learn about Daniel Kahneman’s Two Process View of Cognition.  System 1 is called is called intuition and is very fast.  This speed is the product of learning and is bought at the price of biases used in System 1 Processing.  System 2 is called reasoning and is what we commonly think of as thinking.  One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for errors

Our default bias is to believe new information.  This is called the confirmation bias.  If we did not have this as a default bias, we would probably never have survived as a species.  But it does create problems.  We tend to look for information that confirms what we believe.  Unfortunately, this carries the risk of failing to correct our biases.  Science is structured to look for information to disconfirm current theories or beliefs.
One of the biggest problems is correcting disinformation.  This is why the big lie is so successful.  If something is heard frequently enough, the tendency is to believe it, regardless of whether it is true or not.

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