On Bias and Thinking

I’d like to juxtapose a couple of interesting posts that I have read this week that have bearing on how we select information that subsequently shapes our thoughts.

At Complexity and Social Networks Blog, Maria Binz-Scharf asks “How does the way we process information relate to how we search for it?“. A key excerpt:

“Some days ago I attended a talk on human information processing by Thomas Mussweiler from the University of Cologne who spoke at the Columbia Business School. Mussweiler and colleagues conducted an impressive number of experiments on the mechanisms and influences of individual information processing. A simple example would be to ask you to determine your best athletic performance. You have two basic options: 1) You think of every single athletic moment in your life, i.e. you engage in absolute information processing, or 2) you compare what you recollect as some of your best performances to a given standard, e.g. a famous athlete’s performance (or a famous couch potato’s performance). Not surprisingly it turns out that comparison allows to process information in a more efficient manner.

Mussweiler went on to talk about various factors that influence the comparisons we make, most importantly the standards we employ for comparing information. His experiments used a technique calledpriming to activate certain standards – for example, subjects were asked to judge a trait in a person. The result shows that priming a trait concept (such as aggressiveness) will induce the subject to judge the target person according to that trait. In other words, once activated, standards are spontaneously compared to the target person.”

This is very interesting. “Priming” would be an efficiency mechanism for rapid mental screening of a large number of things. It is also a “bias mechanism” that would strongly predispose you to see some evidence of what pattern you are looking for, even if it does not exist. It would be very much like the ” Framing” of George Lakoff in its effect.

How to deal with that effect, our own unintentional biases or being targeted by zealous Lakoffian framers ? Metacognition might be a helpful technique, as suggested in the post “Strategic Learning: Metacognition and Metamemory” at The Eide Neurolearning Blog . The Drs. Eide write:

“High level strategic learning often requires constant self-regulation and error monitoring strategies, metacognition (thinking about the thought processes), sometimes specific memory techniques (metamemory or conscious thinking about memory).”

Such self-regulative monitoring provides a mental check against racing ahead with a dubious but attractive premise. It would also tend to derail the the likelihood of the amygdala becoming overly engaged in the heat of the argument and turning us into red-faced, sputtering, arm-waving, buffoons with a surge of emotionality.

Cross posted at Zenpundit

Economic Man vs. Primary Loyalties ?

Recently, in the excellent Ikle review comment thread, James McCormick, had some very insightful (and erudite) remarks:

RE: “deep cultural” and “economic meta-” perspectives.

The two may seem very different however the Anglosphere discussion has often focused on the economic impacts of social behaviour. It’s not random chance that we still quote an 18th century lowland Scot (Adam Smith) on so many economic issues. Nor that he was first out of the gate. Nor that his good buddy Hume and inspiration Locke provided so much of the foundation for political science. And economic historians like Joel Mokyr and the duo that described the economic and social impact of Newton’s Principia specifically addressed why the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions (or in Mokyr’s view, an “Industrial Englightenment”) were so dependent on the unique social structure of England, and Scotland. Indeed, the work of Crosby on the momentous intellectual and economic changes of northern Italy directly sets the stage for trading republics in Holland and England. When we turn to economic historians like David Landes, or naval historians like N.A.M. Rodger, they help us put our finger directly on the nexus of culture and economics (or political “evolution”). Jim Bennett’s point is that the Anglosphere nation-state is manufactured out of non-zero sum deals — Burkean communities and Lockean contracts. The social habits to do this (and to slowly transform their political partners into thinking it a very good approach) run very deep. And take a long time to acquire. And surely deserve some reference when prognosticating on how America should deal with a turbulent and dangerous world.

The bone I pick with Iklé and Barnett is that many of their assumptions about political and economic structure (which underpin their geopolitical hypothesizing) depend on a one-size-fits-all model of development that is supported by neither cultural historians nor economists. In fact, they bear no resemblance to any America, current or past (cf. David Hackett-Fisher’s “Albion’s Seed” and Samuel Huntington’s “Who are We?”). When I, as a Canadian, read geopolitical recommendations that require large numbers of Americans of a kind I’ve never met (after 40 years of living, studying, and working amongst them) — my first question is always “how many suns in the sky over *your* planet?” Both authors have something very important to offer. And both suffer from end-state “think-tanqueray.” IMHO. Fortunately, as with so much else, near-term history is going to be dictated by the politically possible rather than the academically plausible.

Let me address McCormick’s second point first.

Setting aside Ikle for the moment, Thomas Barnett or any other thinker who attempts to put an intellectual template on a global system is required to engage in simplification of complexity. It is, as James correctly states, a ” one-size-fits-all” model and not the underlying reality in all its’ nuances and interconnections. At best, a valid model identifies common operating principles and provides a rough predictive capability, considering those principles acting in isolation. As reality is messy, policy makers being guided by any model need to exercise some degree of common sense. Pakistan is not India, much less Indiana, and while markets may exist in all three, the wise statesman makes wide allowances for local variation. The variations however, still have a common touchstone.

In his the first point, McCormick expounds on the symbiotic relationship between economics and social behavior in the historical development of the Anglosphere. That fusion is correct but the cultivation or endurance of particularist identities, what 4GW theorists refer to as “primary loyalties” provide points of friction with the collective maximizing behavior of Economic Man. The Western experience with nationalism and the erection of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War blunts the reemergence of primary loyalties here. Few Germans today think of themselves first as Prussians or Saxons or Protestants but the same cannot be said of Iraqis or Congolese where tribe, clan and sect affiliations resonate. David Ronfeldt, the influential defense intellectual at RAND, refers to tribalism as ” the first and forever form” underlying society.

Western or Anglospheric societies overcame tribalism (broadly understood) with secularization driven both by politics and economics, over a considerable period of time. Economic Man, rational man, slowly gained the upper hand over the atavistic warrior. Defusing psychological anxieties over identity, moving society beyond subsistence level to a point where risk-taking could be more safely entertained, helped transition Europeans into the abstract mental framework of the nation-state citizen, rather than that of a subject of a provincial nobleman. Outside of the West, some states like Singapore have made that same cognitive jump in the very brief period of de-colonization but most have not. That doesn’t mean they won’t or can’t.

In short, I think the caveats raised by James are significant and should be incorporated into any application of Barnett’s ideas. I’m not sure however, that Dr. Barnett would disagree as he is offering a grand strategy or a “blueprint for action” rather than attempting to supervise the every move of the construction crew.

Models of Creativity

Steve DeAngelis of the Enterprise Resilience Management Blog had a post on creative thinking on Monday that should resonate with anyone with an engineering or entrepreneurial background where practical “problem solving” was a driver for finding new ideas:

A New Approach to Innovation

“….A creative thinker, however, is limited if he or she has little or no expertise. Expertise is, in a word, knowledge — technical, procedural, and intellectual. When creative, knowledgeable thinkers are presented with challenges, innovation is generally the outcome. This is particularly true if the creative thinkers are motivated. Not all motivation is created equal. An inner passion to solve problems generally leads to the most creative solutions.

….To be truly innovative, an idea must be manifested then taken to market where it changes how things are done. The prize approach is one of those vaunted “win-win” situations.”

Read the whole post here.

Nothing wrong with the approach to creative thinking that Steve outlined in his post. It is possibly, given the deomographic research on thinking styles, “hands-on” tinkering may be the dominant form of creative thinking – “ tweaking” already existing ideas or items to discover new uses.

However I do not think it is the only, or even the most productive form of creative thinking available. “Tweaking/tinkering or stochastic innovation by collective incremental advances is a gradualist process best exemplified by say, Thomas Edison or George Washington Carver in the lab. There is also the route of Nikola Tesla, Leonardo DaVinci or Albert Einstein where breakthroughs arrive after a moment of insight sets a thinker working down an untrodden path.

Insight-based creativity, while more rarely taken to a successful, concrete and productive conclusion ( Steve was correct to highlight motivation or “task persistence” as an aspect of creativity. Productivity is quantifiable) can potentially shift fields by orders of magnitude or even result in revolutionary paradigm shifts. Insight, on a neuronal level is very likely a product of horizontal thinking triggering certain activity in the brain that is recognizable on MRI studies ( at least it seems to correlate).
Horizontal thinking is a skill which can be practiced and for which the environmental conditions can be deliberately organized
(Vertical thinking experts from different fields, novelty, diverse stimuli, conceptual depth, time for ” free play” thought exercises and exchange of ideas).

Neither method of creative thinking should be relied upon alone. Nor should creative thinkers abandon critical analysis any more than your right hand should abandon the left. We simply need to become comfortable using all of the cognitive tools in our arsenal.

(Cross posted at Zenpundit)

Hayek on Tradition

Just as instinct is older than custom and tradition, so then are the latter older than reason: custom and tradition stand between instinct and reason — logically, psychologically, temporally. They are due neither to what is sometimes called the unconscious, nor to intuition, nor to rational understanding. Though in a sense based on human experience in that they were shaped in the course of cultural evolution, they were not formed by drawing reasoned conclusions from certain facts or from an awareness that things behaved in a particular way. Though governed in our conduct by what we have learnt, we often do not know why we do what we do. Learnt moral rules, customs, progressively replaced innate responses, not because men recognized by reason that they were better but because they made possible the growth of an extended order exceeding anyone’s vision, in which more effective collaboration enabled its members, however blindly, to maintain more people and displace other groups.

F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of SocialismThe Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism

(I remembered this passage when reading Shannon’s prior post, entitled On Tradition.)

Long Live the King

King of Pop dethroned in bloodless coup. — Headline from The Onion

While laid up and channel surfing recently I flipped past a lot of celebrity-news shows. It seemed that every third time I did so the story was about some legal trouble caused by the celebrity’s extreme behavior. Watching all this weirdness it suddenly struck me that we could have it much worse than having to hear about the celebrity trial du jour. In a previous age, we would have had these nut-jobs ruling over us.

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