Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Rationality Project: One Man's Quest to Ignore His Gut Instinct

Esquire really does publish some cool stuff sometimes. This is a great and entertaining look at the current state of neuroscience from a first-person perspective -- this is a great fun even if you are not a science geek interested in consciousness.

The author touches on some well-known premises and/or flaws of consciousness: Source Amnesia, Halo Effect, Confirmation Bias, Mere Exposure Effect, Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, and the Lake Wobegon Effect, to name just a few. Beauty!

The Rationality Project: One Man's Quest to Ignore His Gut Instinct

Your brain may be put together better than something made by MacGyver, but that doesn't make it any better when it comes to rational thinking. Here, one man wages war against his natural (and not-so-natural) instincts.

By A.J. Jacobs

The Rationality Project

Jason Fulford

Art concept by Dominic Wilcox.

My brain is deeply flawed. And no offense, but so is yours.

Your brain is not rational. It's packed with dozens of misleading biases. It's home to an alarming number of false assumptions and warped memories. It processes data all wrong and makes terrible decisions. Problem is, the brain didn't come to us fully formed from a lab at MIT. The brain is merely an ad hoc collection of half-assed solutions that have built up over millions of years of evolution. It's Scotch tape and bubble gum. If it were a car, it would not be a Porsche; it'd be a 1976 Dodge Dart with faulty brakes and a missing headlight.

As one scientist puts it, we've got Stone Age minds living in silicon-age bodies. Our brains were formed to deal with Paleolithic problems. When my brain gets scared, it causes a spike in adrenaline, which might have been helpful when facing a mastodon, but it's highly counterproductive when facing a snippy salesman at the Verizon outlet.

And yet we remain enamored of our ancient responses. These last few years have been a golden age for our most primal impulses. We've got a president who's spent eight years leading from his gut, and look where that's got us. We've got Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, a best seller with a subtle thesis that has unfortunately been boiled down to the pro-intuition message "Don't think, blink." It's given birth to a million stupid decisions.

I've had enough. I'm going to try to revamp my brain. Bring it into the modern era. I'm going to root out all the irrational biases and Darwinian anachronisms and retrain my brain to be a perfectly rational machine. I will be the most logical man alive, unswayed by unconscious impulses. I'll use any means necessary--vigilance, repression, science. I'll also use duct tape, forty tubes of toothpaste, and a shroud over my cereal bowl. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Lake Wobegon Effect

I came up with Project Rationality a couple months ago. I'd always considered myself pretty logical, more Spock than Homer, more ego than id. But then I read a new book called Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which details the alarming number of built-in irrational quirks of the brain. Then I read another recent book called Predictably Irrational. Then another. And another. Turns out brain-bashing is an exploding genre, right up there with tomes about inspirational dogs and atheism.

If you read these books all in a row, you will feel like amputating your head. You learn your brain is programmed to be bigoted and confirm stereotypes. It's easily fooled by anecdotal evidence. Or a pretty face. Or a guy in a uniform. It's a master of rationalization. It believes what it hears. It overreacts. It's hopelessly incompetent at distinguishing fact from fiction. There are scores of "cognitive biases" identified by researchers (Wikipedia lists more than a hundred of them).

When I told my brother-in-law Eric, a behavioral economist at Columbia, about my plan to eliminate all cognitive errors from my brain, he chuckled. He said I was suffering from the Lake Wobegon Effect: Our brains are delusively cocky. We all think we're better-looking, smarter, and more virtuous than we are. (It's named for Garrison Keillor's town, where "all the children are above average.")

"You're vastly overestimating your abilities."

The Availability Fallacy

I wake up on the first morning of Project Rationality this summer and find my wife, Julie, reading The New York Times. That's trouble. Journalism is an enemy of rationality.

What makes news? The unusual and the spectacular, which by their nature distort reality and pervert our decisions. You read headlines like 15 KILLED IN PLANE CRASH IN WYOMING. You don't read headlines like ANOTHER 2,000 DIED OF HEART DISEASE YESTERDAY. This leads to the Availability Fallacy. Our lazy mind gloms on to the most vivid, emotional examples. When we think of danger, we think of hideous plane crashes or acts of terrorism. Even though boring old cars kill eighty-four times more people.

Today, there's an article about salmonella. Eight hundred people have gotten sick from salmonella, possibly from tainted tomatoes--which later will turn out not to be the case. I'm a paranoid bastard, so I would normally purge our house of anything tomato-related: the pint of cherry tomatoes, the ketchup bottles, the Esquire cover of Andy Warhol in tomato soup. Salmonella would climb onto my list of Top Ten Worries.

Instead, I take my first countermeasures. I ask my wife for the newspaper, find a Sharpie, and scribble under the headline: "Meanwhile, millions of people ate tomatoes and did NOT get sick. But thousands did die from obesity."

"That's better," I tell my wife, handing it back to her. There's something validating about writing it out. I explain that every newspaper article should come with a reality-check box, like cigarettes and their Surgeon General's warnings. For now, I'll have to provide my own.

I go to the fridge and consider eating a cherry tomato to spite the media. But that'd be falling for the Reactance Bias, the unreasonable desire to do what others forbid you from doing.

Unit Bias

I do want to have breakfast, though. How to eat rationally? This will be tricky.

Well, one way is to eat less.

As humans, I've learned, we have an irrational urge to finish everything on our plates. No doubt this served our Paleolithic forefathers well when food was scarce and unreliable. But now it just makes us a bunch of fat-asses.

I recently read about this brilliant experiment at the University of Illinois a few years ago. They gave a group of test subjects bowls of soup. What they didn't tell them was this: Hidden tubes underneath the table were constantly refilling the bowls. Guess what? The subjects just kept on eating, long past when they were full. If the scientists hadn't dragged them from the table, they might have exploded.

I pour my MultiGrain Cheerios into a bowl, then cover the bowl with a napkin. I'm not going to let my brain see what's inside the bowl. That'd be too tempting. I'll just eat till I feel full. It's a time-consuming process trying to negotiate the spoon around the napkin. Which is probably a good thing, since it's healthier to eat slowly.

And yet I feel I have miles to go before I can say I ate a rational meal. Like yours, my brain is packed with food-related biases. People often choose the medium size at a restaurant even if the small would suffice--we have a fear of the extremes, so we go with the middle option. We find it logical to eat cows but not other mammals like dogs or mice. Studies have shown we find things tastier if we pay more for them. Or if we eat them out of fancier containers. Later in the day, I eat microwaved chili off our wedding plates. It's delicious.

Source Amnesia

Here's one thing I'm learning: My brain is full of shit. I need a mental colonic.

It's the end of Day One, and I'm grappling with the startling number of myths, half-truths, and outright lies that clog my brain. It's not that I believe in ghosts. Or creationism. Or "energy independence." My misconceptions are less obvious but just as false.

Consider brushing my hair. It sounds reasonable, and I suppose, for the first few seconds I get my hair into place, it is.

Problem is, I keep on brushing for another thirty seconds. I brush my hair till my scalp tingles. Why? Because someone--I think my mother--told me when I was about ten years old that you need to stimulate the scalp or you'll go bald. So that's what I've been doing for the last thirty years.

As soon as I uncover the almost-unconscious belief, it smells rotten, and about three minutes of Googling confirms it: It's a myth, about as effective as rubbing chicken manure on my head, another ancient remedy.

I call my mom to ask whether she was, in fact, the one who told me.

"That sounds like something I said," she says.

"Well, it's not true. It's a myth."

There's a pause. "Sorry."

"Well, I spent a lot of time brushing my hair because of that." (More than three total days of hair-brushing, to be precise.)

"I'm not sure what to tell you except sorry."

Damn. Now I'm the bad guy in this scenario.

"Anyway," she says. "Why were you taking advice from me about baldness? You should have talked to your dad."

"I was ten!"

I'm the victim of two brain flaws. First, we place too much trust in authority. We follow the captain even if it's clear he's leading us right over Havasu Falls. It's hardwired into our brains. The second is just as insidious: Source Amnesia. We forget where we learned a fact. Facts are initially stored in a pinkie-shaped region called the hippocampus. But eventually the information shifts over to the cerebral cortex--where, as Welcome to Your Brain authors Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt put it, it is "separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don't remember how you learned it." A fact learned in The Wall Street Journal gains as much credulity as a "fact" learned from your cousin's barber.

And it gets worse. Even if we are told--clearly warned--that something is false or unsubstantiated, we often remember it later as gospel.

I need to root out these untruths. With a little research, I refute some of my more dubious beliefs: Shaving your hair does not make it grow back thicker, turning lights on and off does not waste more energy, sugar does not make you hyperactive. Despite what Mom said, I don't need to wear socks or slippers around the house for health reasons; you can't get a cold from cold feet.

Yet when I try to go shoeless around the house, it causes me such low-grade angst, I give up and put my Merrells back on. They are stuck deep, these myths. And I know there are dozens, hundreds of other undiscovered falsehoods lurking in my neurons and warping my choices. But how do I identify them?
Read the whole article.

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