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Introduction to week 3

Welcome to week 3

In the last two weeks, we have talked about the idea that hidden mental depth is an illusion and that our brains, in particular, see the world in comparative, rather than absolute terms.

We do not really know how bright or heavy anything is; how painful our pains are; how strongly we prefer one option to another or to what extent we believe some claim to be true. We are, quite literally, making up our minds as we go along. To do this, we use the things we have around us, including our memories of what we have done in the past and what we have seen other people do. However, we have to reason with this information in an intelligent and rational way or our thoughts, and indeed our lives, would be completely chaotic.

We tend to be astonished by our own irrationality and inconsistency. But this may be an unreasonably negative and self-critical perspective on the human mind. Do not forget that rationality is the default option in human behaviour. It is because we are mostly so rational and cope so well with a complex and unpredictable world, that we find examples of our irrationality so disturbing.

This week we talk about rationality and offer one perspective (and, of course, there are many others) on what it is, and why it’s important. We will then come back to some sources of irrationality, focusing, in particular, on how our judgements and our decisions are influenced by the alternatives available to us.

This is just what we would expect from a ‘comparative’ brain. If we don’t know how risky something is, in any meaningful absolute terms, then we are forced to think in relative terms and this is often a lot easier. For example, I may have no idea how risky it is to drive from London to Edinburgh (e.g. what is the probability of death or serious injury), but I do know that driving from London to Edinburgh in the normal way is less risky than the same trip without a seat belt, or breaking the speed limit, or driving from London to Moscow and I strongly suspect that going by car is safer than travelling by microlight aircraft and so on. Our minds focus on comparisons; the alternative options in our minds at the time will have a crucial effect on what we think and do. If different alternatives are highlighted to us, we may come to think and decide differently, because we are making up our minds based on whatever is salient to us at the time.

All will, I hope, become clear!


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The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

The University of Warwick

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