“But why would evolution produce creatures that can’t recognize the truth?”
No 2508 Posted by fw, August 20, 2019
To access links to other posts by Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament, click on the Tab titled Teachings of Dr. Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament – Links to Posts
“In this video we’ll be identifying a number of known ways human belief and perception are distorted, biased and outright wrong relative to our physical reality. But why would evolution produce creatures that can’t recognize the truth? Our ancestors survived because their brains and behaviors were just good enough to navigate the hurdles of the past. Our brains are not logical computers, but use quick and dirty rules that execute almost instantly. Their function is to aid survival, not to accurately represent the world. In this way, we might consider that ‘fake news’ was built in as a brain feature, because erring on the side of survival was the selection criterion. … Mathematical simulations now show that competing organisms selected for useful perceptions will drive organisms, with true perceptions, extinct every time.” —Dr. Nate Hagens
This passage was taken from Part 7/10 of Section 1, (Cognitive Biases), Brain and Behavior. Hagens provides “a bit more background on biology and neuroscience,” comparing our brain’s function “kind of like an advanced Swiss army knife, or, more aptly, a space module with lots of different components that, working quietly together, allow for flight.” But this complexity, observes Hagens, also allows for “… some doozies of cognitive biases and behavioral departures from rationality.”
And it’s the doozies of “cognitive dissonance” and “optimism bias” that occupy Hagens in this video. What worries Hagens about these cognitive biases is that our reality blindness excludes taking action on real threats to our survival.
As mentioned in my August 5 post, Dr. Nate Hagens, professor at the University of Minnesota, has uploaded a set of 34 videos on the nature of our human predicament. These videos, which he uses in his teachings and public lectures, are grouped in three sections — Brain and Behavior; Energy and Economy; and The Big Picture. They are freely available for all on You Tube, offering a total of 6 hours of viewing time. The August 5 post provides a list of all 34 titles along with each and every embedded video.
Posted below is an embedded video of Hagens’ Video 7, Segment 1 of 2 on Self-Blindness. Accompanying this video is my transcript featuring added subheadings, highlighted text, added hyperlinks and images. Alternatively, this video, without the transcript, can be viewed by clicking on the following linked title.
“Humans didn’t evolve to see and understand reality in the true sense”
You might be curious about why I titled this series “Reality Blind”, which is also the title of our upcoming book. It’s because humans didn’t evolve to see and understand reality in the true sense. And that being aware of these blind spots is the first step in mitigating their effect on ourselves and our culture.
“But why would evolution produce creatures that can’t recognize the truth?”
In this video we’ll be identifying a number of known ways human belief and perception are distorted, biased and outright wrong relative to our physical reality. But why would evolution produce creatures that can’t recognize the truth?
The brain’s built-in function is to aid survival, not to accurately represent the world
Our ancestors survived because their brains and behaviors were just good enough to navigate the hurdles of the past. Our brains are not logical computers, but use quick and dirty rules that execute almost instantly. Their function is to aid survival, not to accurately represent the world. In this way, we might consider that “fake news” was built in as a brain feature, because erring on the side of survival was the selection criterion.
We tend to only value truth if it rewards us in the short term. Beliefs do not have to be true to be useful.
“Organisms selected for useful perceptions will drive organisms with true perceptions extinct every time”
Fitness was determined by the usefulness of an organism’s perceptions, not the accuracy. Mathematical simulations now show that competing organisms selected for useful perceptions will drive organisms, with true perceptions extinct every time. Seeing the face of an imaginary predator in the forest when none was really there, is a lot better than missing a real predator face that is there.
Our brains select for tactics that help us survive, whether they’re erroneous, biased, delusional or not
The result of all this is that our present heads are crammed full of systemic error, bias, and delusion, because, for most of the time in our past, it helped us.
Problem is, we’re unaware these departures from truth and rationality exist, much less correct for them.
Why does this matter? It matters because we’re making – or rather not seeing and avoiding — major decisions that will have impacts on our future and that of other species. We’re doing this while being subject to a very long list of non-trivial cognitive biases. There are hundreds of major ones, thousands of minor ones, with new ones being frequently discovered. We don’t know that these departures from truth and rationality exist, much less correct for them.
In the rest of this video, we’re going to do a quick survey of some prominent mental biases relevant to our future.
Our brains come genetically pre-programmed
Okay. Before we start, a bit more background on biology and neuroscience. The large-scale brain plan is genetic. We come largely pre-wired. Our ancestral organisms evolved separate physical and functional processing modules in the brain, basically single-purpose mini-brains running in tandem for eating, moving toward or away from light, running or standing still, smelling, mating, etc. To work in the real world these systems all had to operate simultaneously in parallel because neither predators nor prey would wait around while an animal had to choose which of its mental skills and senses to activate. When a new ability proved useful, it was tacked on top of the existing neural scaffolding of prior successful adaptations.
Our brains have countless different modules working silently and smoothly together
This is the only way evolution can work. A subsystem that originally evolved to smell things might get better over time at reacting to smells relevant to the animal’s survival, but such a smelling module wouldn’t additionally evolve to perform something entirely unrelated – like recognizing a snake. Because of this, our brains function kind of like an advanced Swiss army knife, or, more aptly, a space module with lots of different components that, working quietly together, allow for flight.
When separate brain modules are triggered by internal conflicting signals, the decision-making response will be whatever aids our historical and future survival
But how these modules function in reality is they’re each quiet and subdued until they shout for attention. The “me” in your brain responds to the module shouting the loudest at the moment, and is unaware of the hundreds or thousands of other modules running silently and smoothly.
As we’ll see, this results in some doozies of cognitive biases and behavioral departures from rationality.
This was all once referred to as the “triune brain” with the reptilian core lying near the brainstem dealing with fight or flight type responses. Above that is the limbic system of emotions and memory. And riding on top of all is the neocortex, able to do math proofs and Kahoot* trivia contests, and follow brownie recipes. All of these brain regions work in complex synergy. Tasks with various important things seamlessly combining to aid our historical and future survival, seamlessly, but not without quite a bit of error and bias, as the elephant, as we’re about to see, often ignores the mahute.** [*game-based learning platform] [**elephant trainer or keeper]
Okay, the first, the famous one, cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance forces the brain to resolve conflicting beliefs, ideas, or values
Cognitive dissonance occurs when conflicting beliefs held by separate brain modules are triggered simultaneously and must be decided between or reconciled. This is unpleasant and forces the brain to resolve the internal conflict somehow. For instance, a person in a low-paying job, cleaning out dog cages at the pound, must come up with a reconciling narrative to rationalize to himself why he stays in such a job rather than look for a new job. So he decides he must like the job a lot.
Denial of risk is often used to resolve cognitive conflict – [think of denial over climate change]
A famous example was highlighted by Jared Diamond about a dam potentially bursting. People that were 5 miles downstream were quite worried about it; people 3 miles downstream were really worried about it; but paradoxically people closest to the dam, right underneath it, were genuinely unconcerned. This is psychological denial — the only way of preserving one’s sanity while looking up every day at a dam, is to deny the possibility it could burst.
If something that you perceive arouses in you a painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pain even though the practical results of ignoring your perception may prove ultimately disastrous. A persistent state of dissonance is highly unpleasant for us to maintain, which is why most of us don’t.
Optimism bias is a cognitive bias that causes someone to believe that they themselves are less likely to experience a negative event – [like climate change]
Optimism bias. You’re all familiar with this. People naturally think they’re better than average — teachers, students, parents, etc. This confidence exists not only in our self-regard, but also in our attitudes towards the future and things we don’t understand. Science shows that optimistic framing increases helper T cells, which is an immune system booster.
Being optimistic reduces stress, but it also prevents us from taking action on threats to our survival
And being optimistic and hopeful reduces the stress hormone cortisol. This is one reason why the implications in this video series are so easily rejected by most people. Not only do we prefer to focus on stories that don’t require too much personal sacrifice or effort, but hearing things we don’t fully understand or know what to do about causes a stress response. Yet without some kind of stress response how are we actually going to mitigate the larger problem society faces.
Optimism bias that bad things won’t happen to you, may eventually cause bad things to happen to you
Optimism bias is prevalent in our culture. It feels better to believe happy things uncritically. But – and the reason I’m making these videos for 19-year-olds – uncritical belief in happy things eventually causes unhappy pain.
In Part 2 of the Cognitive Bias videos we’re going to look at our social biases and what this implies for our society.
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