Thursday, March 19, 2020

cognitive biases. flaw or feature?

It wasn’t that long ago when the subject matter and context in pop songs had somewhat more substance and sense of inquiry.

Yes, kids, this was pop, believe it or not.

‘There’s definitely, definitely, no logic, to human behaviour. But yet so, yet so irresistible. And there is no map…'

Human Behaviour is the opening track on Debut, the breakthrough album by Icelandic singer- songwriter Björk. The set was produced by Bristol Underground graduate Nellee Hooper and first dropped in 1993.

Talking about the inspiration for the record, Björk looked back on her schooldays.

‘When I went into the sixth form at school, I choose science, math and physics and thought psychology, anthropology, sociology and history and such was for sissies. They call subjects in school about people ‘kjaftafog’, which means nattersubjects.

As I got older, I have learned to appreciate nattersubjects and recently read many books for the first time about psychology and... So I have learned a little about humans.’

But yet so, yet so irresistible. And there is no map

Is there a map? What does motivate human behaviour?

I’ve been a proponent of applied behavioural economics and suchlike in recent years, however, even invoking cognitive biases has now taken on ‘magical’ properties.

When wearing my consulting hat, I sometimes help clients evaluate creative pitches from agencies.

Of course, I pay most attention to the strategy parts of the pitches. It’s always interesting to see what the competition are up to, or where their heads are at.

Some form of applied pseudo-behavioural economics theory is clearly the flavor du jour.

It’s been a remarkable rise. In just a few years behavioural economics has gained significant traction in advertising agencies to the point that nearly every planner and their dog now like to point out how human decision making has become bamboozled by biases.

The irony, of course, is that the standard line trotted out to preface the ‘insights’ – humans are irrational and make emotional decisions etc. – is as fallacious an example of thinking, as the thinking ‘errors’ of consumers the planner is trying to describe.

Planners fail to understand that biases are just tendencies and are also highly context-dependent. This - very thin - focus on biases is unhelpful in several ways. It’s Wikipedia planning.

In one particular pitch I sat in on, every agency played a (magical) loss aversion card in their ‘consumer insights’ slide. Yet demonstrated little real understanding of the concept and where it might or might not come into play, and what purpose it serves in decision making.

They knew the ‘name’ of the thing, though.

Being able to reel off a list of definitions of cognitive effects does not magically turn someone into a behavioural practitioner.

The thing is, most of these commonly invoked ‘irrational’ biases evolved for excellent, rational and adaptive reasons.

When resources are scarce—as they were for 99.9% of our existence as a species—loss aversion would have been a perfectly rational bias to possess.

For early humans, the implications of losing a supply of food would have been significant.

Almost certain death.

Whereas gaining a week’s worth of food meant survival and perhaps trade opportunities for one more week.

Your mind is a collection of evolved, domain-specific programs and whatever you are thinking and doing right now depends on which of these programs is currently in command of the ship.

Each of these programs is functionally specialised for solving a different adaptive problem that arose in what is called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA.

EEA describes the situational and external factors in which an evolved trait adapted over time. And the collective influence of selection pressures that caused an adaptation to develop.

The EEA of early humans that produced our brain development – from around one million years ago until around ten thousand years ago - is very different from our modern world.

And so, it’s an important distinction to make. Being well adapted to a particular environment and being adaptable to environmental change are different.

This is why many psychologists are arguing that many of the problems we face in the modern world are down to modern society representing this evolutionary ’mismatch’.

A mismatch happens when people (or a species) are faced with a fast-changing environment to which their bodies and minds – their hardware and software – are not well-adapted.

We should be afraid of cars and electricity. But we’re not. These are evolutionarily novel sources of danger. Too novel for our old equipment. Instead, our innate fears - spiders, snakes and the dark - have more ancient origins.

It’s not always neat. In fact, it’s a bit messy.

Not least because these programs, or modules, all evolved at different times in our evolutionary history. Not only that, but they also are quite distinct from one another, and can (simultaneously) hold contradictory views.

Although, I’m in two minds about that.

The classic rational economists and the modern behavioural economists have both got the story part right but also partly wrong.

For sure, our decision making is biased in ways that sometimes lead us to make silly choices.

But this does not mean that our decisions are dumb or irrational.

And those economists are correct that we are rational and smart. Just not in the way they think we are.

When we look at the deeper logic of human minds, it becomes clear that all decision making is geared to promote deep-rooted evolutionary goals.

If a cognitive bias positively impacted fitness in the ancestral environment - and if it's still around today then it almost certainly did - it is not a design flaw, it is a design feature.


Adapted excerpt from ‘Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here Is Failure to Communicate’

Available now at Amazon worldwide and in discerning bookstores.

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