The beginning of this book is quite trivial, but starting with chapter 4 it starts raising really important questions. Amazon link. There will be quite a few of my thoughts, too, so buckle up.
1/ The Reality Gap
MK: This chapter is dedicated to the basics of cognitive and unconscious processing of the world by our brains. Other than a few curious examples, the chapter doesn’t offer anything substantially new. The “reality gap” is the gap between what we think is going on and what’s actually going on.
There are two different ways of seeing an object in front of us: the one that allows us to see the object and perceive its attributes and purpose, and the other one guides the moves we make in relation to this object. Touching gives us an idea of what an object is thanks to the shape, material, etc. – but this is done in a different part of the brain, not the one controlling our hands. Hearing is important to create a sense of order and sequence. Perception is followed by postproduction work.
In case of emergency time doesn’t slow down, i.e., the brain doesn’t work faster, but it tried to record as much information as possible. [MK: we’re just read about it in “Cringeworthy”.]
“…the human brain is built to accept what it’s told, especially what it’s told conforms to our expectations and saves us tedious mental work.“ (quote)
Some blind people, while not being able to consciously see things, are able to navigate obstacles without seeing them and can recognise emotions and mirror them. [MK: as we know, we can only make a conscious attempt to recognise one’s real emotion, but this will still do.]
MK: This chapter touches on the research by Kahneman and Tversky, which was partially debunked (to me if a book is not touching on the limitations of the prospect theory, it’s biased), but is still somewhat useful.
It’s nice to be reminded of the creeping determinism: if we know the outcome, looking back we rationalise that this outcome was inevitable or at least the most probable. [MK: our brain works non-stop on producing the consistent picture of the world for ourselves.]
The theory goes that emotions are the mind’s way of processing the physiological experience of a high-stakes situation. First the body acts, then the brain produces emotions to explain why it has acted a certain way.
Emotions also play a role in our decision making and risk assessment: if a certain activity is beneficial, its risks are perceived to be low and the benefits – high, and vice versa.
AI is the most dangerous when people think they’re conquering their own irrationality via sophisticated tools – mental and software, - but in fact become victims of AI biases directing their decisions [MK: see the Weapons of Math Destruction].
3/ Two Systems
Again, not a new notion of two parallel systems – System 1 (automatic, unconscious) and System 2 (controlled processing, analytical intelligence). (Kahneman) The failure to make a rational choice is a mistake of both systems: first on the response level and then on a judgement level. System 1 is shares by most people, so there’s no marked difference in cognitive abilities between them. System 2 doesn’t always get involved unless the mistakes made by System 1 (i.e., going with the gut) are huge, and even then, sometimes it rationalises these mistakes instead of correcting them.
Stress makes instinctive tasks easier, but difficult tasks – even more difficult. System 2 thinking is very expensive in terms of time and energy and quickly depletes the available body reserves. It’s probably impossible to spend energy on running from a bear and thinking about a complex escape plan at the same time.
Thin slice judgements – quick and acceptably correct judgements that can be made in parallel with other thinking activities. No need to think deeper.
This approach can dramatically backfire when one’s facial appearance is being judged first – the most likeable person wins.
MK: The book mentions IAT (Implicit Association Test), which is far from being criticism-free. I believe talking about implicit biases has become such a huge cliché that it’s worth simply skipping the paragraphs related to them as it’s highly unlikely (pun intended) to find any sort of signal in this regurgitated noise.
Bias is evolutionary, too: it’s an instinctive way of recognising in-group or out-group members. People used to live in small clusters, where they had a certain degree of protection as long as they stuck to their own group.
MK: this is music to my ears: people (usually - from affluent societies) like travelling and exploring non-tourist destinations (“off the beaten path”) to get the authentic feel of how people in other cultures live. The only problem is – do these people from other cultures want visitors? Has anyone asked them if they want to be off that beaten path?
MK: on the other hand, the author quotes a fascinating study by Yarrow Dunham about children and in-group social dynamics (including bias, of course). Indeed, even children are so predictably and … scarily hard-wired to favour the members of their group, even if the group was constructed completely randomly.
The minimum group paradigm simply tells us that no matter what size our group is or what its composition is, in-group members would inevitably consider themselves superior to out-group members, appear more conscientious and kinder. The worst part is that they believe this to be an objective reality.
Devoted actors are ready to die for their abstract ideals (think of ISIS / Peshmerga fighters), and their utmost loyalty is to their fighting buddies, not their relatives. [MK: I’m not making any moral judgement here whether their cause is good or bad, it’s not relevant here.]
Sacred values are non-negotiable, they can’t be traded off for anything of material value. They almost always include freedom and dignity and loyalty to their group (defined by practicing a certain branch of major religion or religious identity). Group identity overpowers the individual, and the strength of devotion is considered way more important than the weapons available to a person.
Systems of sacred values allow larger groups to form and maintain their numbers without people leaving. [MK: there was such an elegant term in the book: “blind to exit strategies”.]
There’s a believable hypothesis that sacred values are akin to specific rules: they’re instinctive and don’t need any brainpower to comply [MK: again, no judgement], while non-sacred values need at least some brainpower to identify the situation and make a call on the expected behaviour. Tribalism and religion use the instinctive System 1 of decision making.
“Abstract values – values that arguably make no material difference in our lives but speak to who we want to be – are more easily elevated to a sacred role” (quote).
Logically, the conflict between different tribes is inevitable, and the emergence of large cities only exacerbates the issue. The system of civil rules and policies somehow reduces the pressure, but there’s always a question of IT, media and capitalism. [MK: make a note of the first instance of capitalism being mentioned in a critical context. I’m sure there will be more of it.]
OK, here it goes: social media amplifies our tribalist tendencies. With forums (4chan as an example) it’s easy to convert from lurking and criticising to embracing the very topic one was critical of not so long ago, as the tribal instincts kick in.
Being a member of the group does change one’s affiliation, identify and the value system. Unsurprisingly, Facebook groups produce more activity and emotions in their members.
People’s brains are wired to have a deeper emotional reaction to who they think they are and what they can do to similar people rather than who they really are. [MK: that very irreconcilable gap from “Cringeworthy” again.] What’s important here is that people are more willing to participate (become group members, sign up for a social network) if the invitation doesn’t require weighing costs and benefits of doing so.
The ideals we hold around fairness, freedom and rationality are not achievable by modern humans, so the conflict will be eternal. Peace in large groups is unnatural and can only be achieved by suppressing the built-in internal human nature. Our instinctive reactions are honest, while not pleasing to everyone. The System 2 loop built to suppress System 1 is manipulative and forces us to consume (economics needs good consumers) and agree to live in the dominant world order. And it’s a tool to facilitate cognitive dissonance, which (as any tool) can be exploited.
MK: finally, the book is getting an edge. I’ll continue working on it.