The harsh reality of cognitive limits.

 

Want to Build Great New Habits?
Interested in the Stunning Research that Changes Everything?
How about The Brain Hack that Makes You a Winner?

Clickbait like this is common, alongside more respectable Serious Yet Slightly Breathless News Items.

I spent several years researching behaviour change and running pilot projects on pro-environmental behaviour. My reading list was measured in feet and inches—I still have a two-foot stack of studies, and those are just my very favourites.

Out of all of this, I found one deeply important insight that explains, or frames, all of the work in the area—even the clickbait.

Our thinking has limits.

Just like we can only run so fast, or jump so high, we can only think so much.

I am going to show how this underpins everything from habits to heuristics—and how it helps us understand how to proceed. And yet this fact is very rarely discussed—and when it is discussed, we usually ignore it only to repeat the same old mistakes.

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So, our thinking has limits—which is not so surprising when you think about it. Our brain weighs only about three pounds. It sits inside a body that is fueled by food just a few times a day and still needs to sleep for eight hours.

Our senses take in an enormous amount of data that our brain must manage and select responses for. As Tor Norretranders says:

“The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second – at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits…”

Estimates of how many million bits per second vary, but the average estimate is about 60 million.

60 million bits of data per second flood our senses, but we are conscious of only 40. Not 40 million, just 40. That means we are conscious of just 0.00007% of what we perceive.

And you wonder why it is hard to get people to read your recycling brochure.

We ruthlessly filter the data pouring in through our senses, sorting and discarding, seeking patterns that would elevate bits from data to information.

A cracking sound in the woods, maybe a silence of birdsong, an observation that the berry bush you are standing by is heavy with delicious fruit—these resolve themselves into “That bear is going to kill me.”

The data has survived the filters and become very useful information.

This is why we have a Novelty Bias. If you are just standing there with nothing happening, you can probably keep standing there and nothing will happen, and so your brain can nod off. It is when something new happens—like the crack of a stick in the silence—that we start to pay attention.

After you have filtered for what you hope is important, the biases and heuristics keep rolling.

“That bear is going to kill me, now what do I do? Do I freeze? Do I play dead? Do I run?”

“The last time I ran from a bear, I lived to tell the tale—so it will probably work this time…” That is the Similarity Heuristic.

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So we are absolutely swamped with data. Furthermore, we—and our brains—evolved in a context that required fast action to secure food and faster action to avoid predators. We simply would not have been able to cope if we had to evaluate and carefully consider every bit of data. So we evolved coping strategies.

filtering  =  coping strategy
cognitive biases  =
 coping strategy
habits  =
 coping strategy
rules of thumb (heuristics)  =
 coping strategy
tribalism  =
 coping strategy
not listening  =
 coping strategy
copying  =
 coping strategy
social choice  =
 coping strategy
doing nothing  =  coping strategy

 

That is what the clickbait and much of the popular science writing is about—it is research that unveils the coping mechanisms we use to deal with the flood of data flowing through a brain that has limits.

For example, Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Economics Award-winning psychologist and one of the founders of Behavioural Economics. In his wildly popular book Thinking Fast and Slow, he describes how our brains use two systems: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

Kahneman is describing our coping mechanism for a brain that cannot deal with all of the data it receives, and so it manages most of it quickly, with broad strokes, in order to conserve the deliberative resources for fewer—hopefully more important—things.

Researchers such as Roy Baumeister or Jonathan Haidt have drawn from Kahneman and Tversky’s work, and popular books such as Blink, Nudge and Switch reference them heavily. Switch uses Haidt’s metaphor for the two systems—an elephant and it’s rider. One is big and powerful, the other is little, and spends a lot of time thinking. System one, the fast and intuitive process, is what Gladwell discusses in Blink.

The research, the pop science, the clickbait—they are all describing our coping strategies.

Many coping mechanisms work all right; for the most part they have helped humanity plod along to where we are today. But we are starting to see some spectacular failures. Sometimes we find ourselves unprepared to deal with modern problems using a stone age brain, and so we  try to hack or tweak our coping mechanisms.

I have lost count of how many pop science articles I have read that describe a cognitive bias and say, “Ah-HAH! A bias! Now all we need to do is hack that bias and we can get back to the par-tay!”

Here is the thing—

The solution increases the problem.

The coping strategy is trying to deal with too much data—and the tweak often just increases the demands on our brain.

If you have a bias evolved to deal with your limited attention, trying to deal with that bias by asking for more attention is…Dumb? A waste of time? Probably going to fail?

But most recommendations for how to deal with our coping strategies still frequently demand attention, and sometimes sustained attention.

This would mean the tweak needs the right information to make it through the filters instead of getting stuck along with the other 60 million bits, if the data doesn’t make it through the filter, then the tweak won’t work. Furthermore, to sustain change using conscious tools would require that the data make it through  the filter over and over again.

And all of this is in competition with huge corporate advertising budgets, the demands of work and family life, and stress of all kinds.

All of this combined with thousands of environmental, social justice and economic issues that must be urgently addressed.

To put it mildly, that seems overly hopeful.

Yet that is what is being proposed whenever a politician says, “It is all about education”, or an environmental group says, “We need to raise awareness”, or a campaign asks you to spread the word, or watch a documentary film.

Every second they have your attention, you are filtering 59,999,960 bits of information, but they feel pretty confident you are going to listen to them.

The results speak the truth. We ignore the reality of human cognitive limits, and we design strategies that rely on cognitive capacity we simply do not have.

And so we fail.

What would a better strategy be? I think we must build Compassionate Systems that shape our behaviour or address problems without needing attention. A programmable thermostat eliminates 20% of our heating energy, without attention. A well-designed house can eliminate heating energy, without attention.

I also think we must redesign our democracy. As citizens we cannot keep up with the hundreds of important issues in our country—and if we think our politicians are reading the thousands of pages of reports they get each month we are deluding ourselves; they too are only human. We need electoral and consultation systems that are designed for the brains we have, not the brains we wish we had.

 

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Global News

Two days ago I awoke to an eerie, silent hellsky. It was dusky dark, even first thing in the morning. The colour and brightness of the sky was all wrong, not just overcast but unnatural. Throughout the day, people described it as apocalyptic, discomfiting and especially, unsettling. Even the birds kept quiet.

Of course, as people in southwest British Columbia will know, it was the smoke of dozens of forest fires. But the knowledge did not calm the hairs standing on the back of my neck; only late the next day did they lay down.

The atmospheric weirdness wound social media to high tension and a petition was soon circulating to shame the provincial government into renewing their contract with a fleet of venerable and large waterbombers, The Martin Mars.

Clickety-click, petition signed, democracy in action. Three cheers for Western Civilization!

Then somehow a Factsheet from the B.C. Government surfaced, which essentially said:

  • The Martin Mars is too big and too slow to safely maneuver close to B.C.’s rugged terrain, whereas the currently contracted Fire Boss airplane is faster and more nimble.
  • Again because of its size, the Mars can only land on 113 lakes in B.C., whereas the Fire Boss can resupply on over 1,700 bodies of water.
  • The Fire Boss is more capable of delivering foam fire suppressants.
  • On the 2014 West Kelowna fire, the average cost of dumping a litre of water was 19¢ for the Fire Boss and 63¢ for the Mars.

Boom.
Detail. Facts. The petition was clearly the reactions of the uninformed; mob rule instead of reason and deliberation. The petition was probably started by opponents of our current “Liberal” government, simply looking to score political points. Mob rule is exactly why democracy is so important as a check and balance.

Then somehow a rebuttal to the factsheet surfaced. Sentence by sentence, the factsheet was dismantled—or at least the proper judgement of the situation was made much more complex.

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So, I am a pretty smart guy. I am quite literate, and consume an enormous amount of information which I contemplate and analyze and fit into the pattern of the emerging worldview I write about here.

I spent about an hour, and read two factsheets. I think it is safe to say that I spent greater attention learning about this issue than I do—or anybody does— for 99% of the issues we face. I did the right thing.

And I remain utterly confused about which waterbomber is a better choice to spend my tax dollars on.

Our cultural narrative—repeated endlessly on the nightly news—is “It is all about education.” When people are informed, they will make rational choices and will—obviously—vote for the best choice. Or at least write a letter to their local representative about the best choice.

And therefore, if people are not making the right choice, it is because they are uninformed or poorly informed and need education. The problem is cast as being a failure with us instead of a problem with the system.

Cue the campaigns: more pamphlets, forlorn photographs, sticky cognitive frames, and celebrity endorsements. If what you are doing doesn’t work, do the same thing more! Bigger! Faster!

My research on behaviour change offers a different perspective. If what you are doing doesn’t work, that may be because it just doesn’t work. No amount of bigger or faster will make it work, because it doesn’t work. In fact, it can’t work.

But a very few campaigns do work, and that adds to the corrosive danger of our narrative of democracy.

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I invite you start listing all the issues that request your attention. Think of every time someone has said, “It is all about education,” and then keep adding all the other things: climate chaos, racism, temporary foreign workers, clearcuts, sexism, globalization, real estate, abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty. And then how about girls going to school in Afghanistan, and whether Omar Khadr was a child soldier or an enemy combatant? Foreign food aid. Donating money to Doctors Without Borders or to your local Humane Society.

It is pretty clear we could keep listing for hours, or maybe days. Making a proper, informed judgement about anything in that list should take weeks of dedicated research.

Urban density. Legalized prostitution. Legalized cannabis. Legalized hard drugs. Voting for youth. Gay marriage. Which bathroom Trans people should use. Should Sikh RCMP officers be allowed to wear a turban? Should Sikh motorcyclists be allowed to not wear a helmet? Who pays their medical bill if they get a brain injury while not wearing a helmet? NIMBYs. Gentrification. Displacement.

These issues are complex; people get doctorates in Philosophy and Ethics and every other topic touched on. But me dedicating even one hour to a new topic is highly unusual. We just don’t have time. Even if we dedicated one hour to a new topic every single day we would never get through our list, and would be only slightly less uninformed.

My personal interest is on the limits to our cognitive capacity, so that is how I tend to think about the problem of democracy, but the limited hours in the day works just as well. You sleep for eight, work for eight, commute, cook, wash, shop for food, play with your kids, clean the house, visit friends, maybe care for an aging parent—almost nobody spends even one hour a day researching these important issues.

And there is nobody who has researched and developed an informed opinion on all the issues.

Which is why we elect politicians to represent us, right?

Are you kidding me? Politicians are worried about being elected; do you think they actually read the 3,963 pages they are given on every single vote? I bet they spend less time than the average citizen; they have a lot of other obligations.

I might sum up Western Democracy as the process by which we use one vote, cast sporadically, to elect someone who is largely as uninformed as we are, in the hopes they will represent our complex and often self-contradictory views. If they do not, we have no recourse except the laughable “holding them to account” in the next election cycle—at which time we may find we make exactly the same choice we did last time because our concern for abortion rights still outweighs our desire for intact ecosystems. Get Out the Vote campaigns change nothing more than the number of people casting that sporadic, lonely, unenforceable vote.

So. We are obviously not making rational informed decisions. Almost nothing is “about education”.

Civil society groups use campaigns to fight for balance, to maintain some pressure between elections. Most of these campaigns utterly fail—as they must; we simply do not have enough time in the day to give them the attention they need.

Some of these campaigns do succeed—and as I said earlier, I think this is corrosive to democracy. If you “succeed” because of your acute framing, or because of the emotional heartstrings you pull, we are still not having the informed and rational debate we say we are supposed to be having. If a bandage staunches the flow of blood from a sucking chest wound, it gives the appearance the problem has been solved, but leaves the underlying condition untreated. A little success maintains the intravenous drip that keeps us hooked, without actually creating comprehensive change.

Right-wing populists propose referenda; the left-wing collectivists like Direct Democracy—both of which face us directly back at the immutable fact there is simply not enough time in the day to make informed choices about all the issues we face. Given the choice between Elected Unrepresentative or the Rule of Ignorant, I would prefer a benevolent dictator.

Being assured of benevolence is always the rub, though many people feel their elected government is not benevolent, though typically less inclined to summary execution.

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So what then, to do?

I think we must discard the idea of rational choice. We must trash it with the ferocity and power of an NBA Slam Dunk Competition. It is corrosive, and it keeps us from trying different approaches.

We must explicitly separate moral questions from factual questions. The moral position of the people in our country is more reasonably polled.

We must acknowledge we will never have the capacity to make informed decisions on all the factual problems we face. I think we should assign the resolution of these problems to the binding decision of a Citizen’s Assembly.

As in the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, a group of regular folks will be selected by lottery and balanced for sex, race and other demographics. The Assembly will spend a year, or two, or five, diving deep into an issue, and then they will make a decision.

And I think we should all just do what they say—they are people just like us, who have actually devoted the time to an issue in way we are all supposed to do. And they should do what we say, coming out of the Assemblies we sit on. Do we even need an elected government, or would simply having a Scheduler of Assemblies be enough? I don’t know.

For better or worse, we have arrived at a time and place where we have just enough information to make asses of ourselves. With good reason, we don’t trust politicians, bureaucrats, corporations or special interest groups. We aren’t going to move forward by doing the same thing bigger or faster. We need to do it different.

 

 

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