Why do smart people make dumb decisions? Why do conspiracy theorists think that we
didn’t land on the moon or that Hillary Clinton is a space alien? And why won’t Bernice admit that the new
Superman movie just isn’t very good? We’ve talked about cognition before. We
usually refer to it as the process that we use to think and solve crossword puzzles and
stuff. But really, cognition involves knowing, remembering, understanding, communicating,
and to a certain extent, learning. And as truly wonderful as our brains are,
we can be spectacularly bad at ALL of these things. We used to think our cognition worked like
a computer — logically processing information. But that cabbage-sized chunk of pink, wet
brain matter in your skull can do a lot more than math, and the things that it does are
certainly not always logical. Many experts argue that it’s cognition that
makes us truly human, and that everything that comes with it — our preferences, prejudices,
fears, and intuitions — are what make us the individuals that we are. We’re not the only animals that show some
evidence of cognition, of course: Chimps and gorillas exhibit insight and planning; crows
use tools; elephants teach each other. But our capacity as humans to figure stuff
out is matched only by our ability to totally misjudge stuff. As prone as we are to brilliance
and insight, we’re equally likely to succumb to irrational thinking and false intuition. So, to borrow a riff from Rene Descartes,
you think, therefore you are. Which means you’re brilliant a lot of the
time. And sometimes, you’re just going to look stupid. [INTRO] We all want to make sense of the world. And
one of the major ways our cognition allows us do that is by forming concepts — mental
groupings of similar objects, people, ideas, or events. We like to lump things together. Concepts simplify our thinking in such a fundamental
way that we usually don’t have to stop and think about using them, they’re just there. And yet without concepts, we’d need a unique
name for everything. You couldn’t just ask me to shake the anglerfish — because there’d
be no concept of shake or fish, let alone stuffed, blue anglerfish. And if I told you I was devastated that I
lost my anglerfish — which I probably would be — I’d also have to explain my emotions,
their intensities, even the words themselves that I had to use. So basically, without concepts, no one would
ever get anything done. We’d all be like a bunch of ents taking all morning to say
“Hey, what’s up?” We often organize our concepts by forming
prototypes–mental images or pinnacle examples of a certain thing. For example, if I say “bird”–the general
shape of a songbird probably pops into your head before like, a penguin or chicken or
emu, because robins and cardinals more closely resemble our bird prototype.
Still, if I show you a picture of some crazy creature you’ve never seen before, and you
note that it has feathers and a beak, you’ll probably file it under the bird category because
it more closely resembles your concept of bird than your concept of rodent or overcoat
or footstool. Concepts and prototypes speed up our thinking,
but they also can box in our thinking, and lead to prejudice if we see something that
doesn’t fit our prototypes. A hundred years ago the sight of a female
doctor might have caused some heads to explode, because in peoples’ tiny minds, the prototypes
of “doctor” and “woman” didn’t have any overlap. And actually some people today
still feel that way. Haters gonna hate. So it’s important to actively keep your
mind open mind to make room for evolving concepts, and remember that concepts may sometimes hurt
as much as they help. One of the biggest ways our cognition works
to our benefit, though, is through our ability to solve problems.
We use our problem-solving skills all the time: How to assemble Scandinavian furniture,
bake muffins with a missing ingredient, or handle the crushing disappointment of the
new Superman movie. And we approach problem-solving in different
ways — sometimes we value speed; other times, accuracy. Some problems we figure out using trial and
error–you know, you try something and if it doesn’t work, try it a different way,
and keep at it until something works. Trial and error is slow and deliberate–which may
be good or bad, depending on the problem. We can also use algorithms and heuristics
to come up with solutions. Algorithms are logical, methodical, step-by-step
procedures that guarantee an eventual solution, though they may be slow to work through.
Heuristics, on the other hand, are more like mental shortcuts — simple strategies that
allow us to solve problems faster, although they’re more error-prone than algorithms.
Say you’re at the store, looking for a family-sized bottle of Sriracha. You could use an algorithm
and methodically check every shelf and aisle in the store. Or you could use heuristics
and first search the Asian or condiment sections–the places that make the most sense based on what
you already know. Heuristics may be way faster, but the algorithmic
approach guarantees you won’t overlook the sauce along the way, because they stuck it
in the deli or whatever dumb thing they did this week. So algorithms, heuristics, and trial-and-error
are problem-solving strategies that involve a plan of attack.
But sometimes we get lucky while puzzling out a problem, and Aha!, out of nowhere a
sudden flash of insight that solves our problem. I’ll use orange in the muffin recipe instead
of lemon! Or, Sriracha lives in the Mexican section! For some reason!
Neuroscientists have actually watched that kind of sudden, happy brain flash on neuroimaging
screens. In one experiment, they gave subjects a problem
to solve: What word can be added to the three words
CRAB, PINE, and SAUCE to create a new compound word?
Then they asked the subjects to press a button when they had the answer. While the subjects thought about it, scans
showed activity in their frontal lobes, the areas involved in the focused attention of
typical problem-solving. But right at the Aha! moment, just as they
pushed the button, there was a clear burst of activity just above the ear in the right
temporal lobe, which, among many other things, is involved with recognition. The answer, by the way, we already gave you
the hint earlier in the episode. Where’s my fish?
Those sudden bursts of insight are awesome, but you can’t count on them to solve all
your problems. And just because something feels, doesn’t mean it’s truly correct.
Because as inventive and smartypants as we may be, our cognition often leads us astray
in all kinds of ways. For instance, we often look for, and favor,
evidence that verifies our ideas, while we’re more likely to avoid or ignore contradictory
evidence — a tendency known as confirmation bias. This is really similar to the overconfidence
we’ve talked about, when you’re basically more confident than you are correct.
When this kind of cognitive bias takes hold, you might cling to your initial conceptions
in a kind of belief perseverance, even in the face of clear proof to the contrary.
This happens all the time, and it can be maddening for people watching it happen. People still
think that the earth is flat! It’s like…WHAT? HOW? There’s space pictures!
I probably don’t need to tell you — people can really get weird and defensive when they
evade facts and choose to see only the information that confirms their beliefs.
They may even become functionally fixed, unable to view a problem from a new perspective.
Instead they just keep approaching a situation with the same mental set, especially if it’s
worked in the past. Say you’ve got a nail sticking out from
a board, and you’re like “I need to take care of that!” There’s rocks, and bricks
all around you. But because of your functional fixedness on the idea that only hammers work
on nails, you don’t even consider hitting it with the brick, and instead you waste a
bunch of time in the garage looking for a hammer, and you’re angry and frustrated,
and there’s still a nail sticking up from the board.
So, our mental set predisposes how we think, just as you’ll remember that our perceptual
set predisposes how we perceive. This is what makes heuristics — those super-convenient
mental shortcuts that we all use — so easily fallible.
In the 1970s, cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman researched how
we make snap judgments, and discovered one way smart people make dumb decisions.
They found that people believe an event will be more likely to occur if they can conjure
up examples or memories of it, especially if those examples are particularly vivid,
scary, or awesome. So, say you’re in a casino and you win two
dollars at a slot machine. Suddenly every flashing light and ringing bell in the place
goes off. But when you lose — which is the vast majority of the time — it’s just…crickets.
With all their lights and noise-making, the casino makes sure that wins are super vivid
and memorable, while losses just go away unacknowledged. That way, the next time you’re standing
there with 100 bucks in your pocket, you’re more likely to overestimate your chances of
winning, because the memories of winning are more striking.
The more mentally available those memories are, the more it seems that it’s going to
happen again. This is known as the availability heuristic.
And it can warp our judgements of people, too. If we keep remembering news footage that
shows people of a given group shooting guns, that can shape our impression of the entire
group — even if what we saw was only a tiny minority within that group.
Essentially, we are great at fearing the wrong things. We worry about being killed in a plane
crash or getting bitten in half by a shark or accidentally choking on a dumpling.
Thanks to our brain’s b-roll of horrific images, we come to fear what’s actually
very rare, instead of worrying about much more common, but less memorable ends like
car accidents, cancer, and heart failure. Our thinking can also be swayed by framing,
or how an issue is presented. Imagine you’re considering climbing Everest or getting a
nose job or eating a bowl of raw blowfish. I can frame the risks in different ways. Telling
you that you’ve got a 95 percent chance of survival sounds a lot different than saying
five out of a hundred people die doing this activity, though the information is the same.
Our cognitive minds are capable of incredible intellectual feats and tremendous failures.
We can solve problems better than any organism on the planet, but given the chance, we can
also mess up a pretty simple judgment every day of the week.
But if we’re mindful of our capacity for error — and if we honor our ingenuity and
intellect — I think our ability to solve any problem is nearly infinite. And that,
gives me a lot of hope. Seriously though where is my fish?
Today you learned how we use concepts, prototypes, and our mental sets to think and communicate,
and how algorithms, heuristics, and insight help us solve problems. You also learned about
how fixation, the availability heuristic, fear, overconfidence, and belief perseverance
can get in the way of good decision-making and thinking.
Thank you for watching, especially to our Subbable subscribers, who make this whole
channel possible. If you’d like to sponsor an episode of Crash Course, get a special
Laptop Decal, or even be animated into an upcoming episode, just go to Subbable.com/crashcourse.
This episode was written by Kathleen Yale, edited by Blake de Pastino, and our consultant
is Dr. Ranjit Bhagwat. Our director and editor is Nicholas Jenkins, the script supervisor
is Michael Aranda, who is also our sound designer, and the graphics team is Thought Café.