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Talking Point and Summary: Week 4

Stories are a bulwark against such chaos.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the roundup for week four of The Mind is Flat. Jess, what are the issues of the week this week? So one of the key things we were talking about in the course this week is the difference between psychology experiments, like lab context, and the real world, and we kind of talked about the fact that it seems like psychology experiments suggest that people make all kinds of crazy irrational decisions when you put them in a laboratory, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into the real world as we might expect. People actually make pretty good decisions most of the time in the real world, and they’re not stumbling around, making all kinds of mistakes.
So perhaps could you start by saying a little bit about how that kind of inconsistency arises, how that’s possible, how we manage to get on in this incredibly complex real world when we can’t even apparently make the simplest of decisions in front of a computer in the psychology lab. Yes. I think one of the key points– and it’s quite a cheering point really– is that although we are very, very bad when we’re decontextualised, everything in our lives is stripped away, we’re stuck in a laboratory with a computer in front of us, and we have to work in this very, very impoverished environment.
Even though we find that very difficult, as soon as you make the world more complicated and richer and embed us in the rest of our lives, we do a lot better. So despite the fact that you might, if you do the odd lab experiment, feel fairly humbled by the experience, in reality, you are still a spectacularly brilliant decision-making machine. Now, the reason that’s the case is that, in practise, you’re not making every decision from scratch. You’re making every decision in relation to all the other decisions you’ve made. So if you’re deciding what to drink, in a lab environment, we can take all the clues out that will connect you up to what you normally do.
But in real life, of course, you’ve done this many times, and you’ve had the opportunity to think, oh, I’ve had that coffee, but that was too much, I don’t want that much, and that seemed rather expensive, or I prefer tea. So you’ve have a lot of experience, and you’ve also had a lot of experience of what other people do too. So there are two deep, important connections. One connection is every decision in reality tends to be connected to other decisions you’ve made, and also it’s connected to what everyone else is doing.
So although it does still allow the possibility that we can all collectively do something crazy now and again, on the whole, embedding ourselves in a social context, embedding ourselves in the rest of our lives, is a very stabilising force. What the lab tells you is how much we depend on those things. So while we might think it’s obvious that I feel it’s worthwhile to pay 2 pounds for a cup of coffee when I go to the cafe, if we took that decision out of that environment– the cafe environment– and gave me squirts of liquid into my mouth and some kind of work I needed to do to earn those squirts of liquid, then who knows what I’d do.
Who knows if I’d even like the coffee or the drink at all. So decontextualising, taking us out of our context and putting us in a lab environment, puts us in a very bad light, because we’re being hauled out from all the other decisions, all the rest of the connections in our lives, which make our lives basically make sense. Yeah, and I think one other thing tying into that that Alex Kacelnik brought up in the interview this week was sort of a slightly different viewpoint on that from evolutionary biology and evolutionary theory, in general, which is perhaps that part of the reason we do well in real life is also that we’re well adapted to that context.
But then, of course, there are some real-life contexts where we’re not as well adapted, because they’re very different from the ancestral environment, and we do less well. And there are real-life environments where we have to deal with difficult probabilities or, for example, where people don’t do as well. So kind of evaluating risk. And other people have the intuition that flying is more dangerous than driving, or at least are more afraid of it, but actually if you look at the statistics, it’s not. So there are real-life contexts in which we do slightly less well perhaps, because we’re less adapted, and we have less experience and so we’re less able to draw on that.
Yeah, that’s absolutely true, and of course, another point is that we are potentially vulnerable to people creating context, in which we’re particularly poor decision makers, and the whole existence really of casinos is a testimony to that. It’s an environment in which people make decisions which they probably oughtn’t be making, at least in many cases, because the expected payoff for the gambles is negative. The casino makes money after all. Yeah. And yet people still– People know this. And we all know this, and people still spend quite a lot of money on gambling. I mean, it’s possible though that there’s this extra thing as well, that you’re paying for the experience and the enjoyment. Yeah.
So I wonder if a few people might be thinking, in response to this, well, if psychology laboratory to context are so different from real life and stripping away all of the context, why do we do them? Are they just misrepresenting humans, and do we need to be– and perhaps a more subtle point, do we need to be careful about the conclusions that we draw from lab experiments? Yeah. I think we definitely do need to be careful, but the lab experiments are incredibly useful, because they allow us to understand the basic principles by which we’re working.
So although it’s true that in practise we don’t make each decision in a vacuum, we make it in relation to our previous decisions and other people’s decisions. To understand how each decision is made, we have to control the environment in which that decision is occurring. And then a second step is saying, well, given we’re like this, for example, given we don’t really understand absolutes, we just make comparisons, then how is it that when you put lots of people together and give them lots of decisions over time, they actually end up more or less most of the time doing sensible things? That’s the challenge.
So you could just as well say– it would be a valid point– you could just as well say that physics does a really good job of understanding how isolated particles work, or chemists do a really good job of understanding how isolated chemical reactions work, and you could say, but in the real world, you don’t get any ball bearings moving around on frictionless planes, and you don’t get any isolated chemical reactions. It’s much more complex. Well, that’s absolutely true but, of course, to understand how chemistry or physics work, you want to do the lab experiments. Then you want to broaden out.
I think the thing that’s slightly more difficult with psychology than with chemistry or physics is that, in some ways, with chemistry and physics it’s so glaringly obvious that what a particle does in isolation, you’re literally taking that particle on its own. It’s so glaringly obvious that that doesn’t have these broad implications for what a chair is going to do. Obviously it does, but it’s so glaringly obvious that you can’t make generalisations from what this one particle does, to what a chair will do. Whereas with psychology lab experiments, there’s a little bit more danger that you might slip into thinking like, oh, well this is what someone did in a lab, therefore this is what all people do ever.
And so I think there is definitely a thing where we have– psychologists need to be– the media, and people, when we hear about laboratory experiments in general, need to be careful about the extent to which we generalise, and there is this tendency to… No, and I think that’s true. To finish up. I think that’s true, both for our own lives, so we should be sceptical about immediate insights from psychology experiments you might read about, even ones in this very course, for shaping your own life, and also for public policy too.
So if you’re actually taking some psychological insight and thinking, well, in that case the governmental ought to do x rather than y, it’s almost certainly true that the government ought to test whether x or y work better in the real world and maybe x will be better or maybe y will be better. But psychology is just not such a precise science, and by no means that we can say from an experiment what will happen in the real world. And it’s also true for physics as well.
So if you imagine trying to design an aircraft through using careful physical analysis, you’d be foolish not to actually build a model aircraft and put it in wind tunnel and, in fact, make the real aircraft and fly it about a bit. Even in the physical sciences, we have to try things for real experimentally to see what really works. So that’s it for this time, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next week.
We started this course by thinking about individual thoughts and decisions and how unstable and inconsistent these can be. One reason that stories are so important, when we think about other people, and ourselves, is that they help us organise some of this instability and tie it together. If each of my thoughts and decisions were entirely new, I would be utterly lost; and the instability of my choices would mean that my thoughts and actions would be appallingly and unpredictably chaotic.
Stories are a bulwark against such chaos. Once I realise what ’story’ I am in, I know what my character should do next. And the linear, step-by-step nature of stories also matches rather nicely the serial, step-by-step nature of our thinking (remember, we can only really think about, or remember, one thing at a time).
So narratives are a way of holding together the behaviour of a single individual over time. But, next time, we will turn to the question of how we are able to coordinate behaviour across people.
In this video I talk with Jess about the common themes of the fourth week. Jess has also summarised the week’s themes here.

Week 4 Experiment

This week’s experiment allows you to test your 2013 general knowledge and, in doing so, perhaps find out something about yourself!
Week 4 experiment
This experiment ran in 2013 and, now that the results have been processed, the website is no longer maintained, so may not be fully accessible or current and technical support is not available. Participants are encouraged to try the experiment in order to test this week’s theories in practice and see how their results compare with the overall findings. However, participation in the experiments is not essential to the learning outcomes of the course.

Talking Point

Before we move to Week 5 we’d be really interested to know how you’re finding the course this week, so please leave a comment or share some part of your experience so far in the discussion below:
  • Do you find yourself answering questionnaires honestly or in a way to make your answers fit the purpose of the questionnaire, or make yourself sound ‘better’?
  • Are you conscious of how or why you make certain decisions?
On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 10 is a ‘believer’ and 1 is not) how much do you now subscribe to the idea of a ‘flat’ mind? It’ll be interesting to compare your answer here your previous weeks and see if anything has changed in either your understanding or appreciation of the idea or concept of a flat mind.
Don’t forget to contribute to the discussion by reviewing comments made by other learners, making sure you provide constructive feedback and commentary. You can also ‘like’ comments or follow other learners throughout the course.

Next Week

Next week we will see how the fact that we can only compare and do not really know the absolute value of any quantity (size, money, risk, pain) can help explain some of the puzzling, and apparently irrational, peculiarities of human decision making.
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The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

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