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Week 2 round-up

Please check back here on Monday afternoon of week 3 for the weekly round-up of the previous week.
So welcome everyone to the week two wrap-up of, “The Mind is Flat.” Jess, what have people been discussing this week? So this week in the course, we looked particularly at how people aren’t very good at making absolute judgements, and we tend to be much better at making relative comparisons. And that can mean that the context in the way that the questions are framed often affect a lot of what judgments we make, basically. So one question that a lot of people were asking was, OK, I buy this, but the mind is comparative though all our judgements are relative, but how does this relate to your general thesis, and the point from the first week, which is that the mind is flat.
So how does having a comparative mind mean that the mind is flat and doesn’t have that. Well, I think there is a connection, but it’s not a completely straightforward one. So you could believe in a comparative mind and not go as far as saying that the mind is as it were wholly flat, and I’ll say what I mean by that in a moment. So for a long time, people were looking at the psychology of perception, have found that the way we judge colours and brightnesses, and weights, and all the things we’ve hinted at this week, seem to be working in a comparative fashion. So that’s a kind of very established, well known thing.
And it tends to make one suspect, if you think about it in the context of more abstract quantities, like amounts of money, or delays before you get treated for a problem with your hip or whatever it may be, some more abstract things. If you think that people think comparatively about that too, then it starts to have implications for the stability of your preferences and judgements. So if you had, as it were, a stable set of beliefs and preferences, then it ought to be the case that a certain amount of money should mean a certain amount to you.
So for example, supposing someone said, oh you’ve got to wait an extra two weeks for that to be seen about your painful hip, but we’ll compensate you, rather bizarrely, but we’ll compensate you with, say, £100. Then, you should be able to absolutely think– well, that’s either good or it’s bad. It’s either worth it or it’s not worth it. You might be a bit outraged by the whole concept. But if you go with it, you might think– yes, that’s fair compensation or it’s not. And that would be a stable thing. But of course, as soon as you realise that we don’t really know what £100 means for us, psychologically, we’re only judging in relation to other numbers.
So if I’ve just been thinking about big sums of money, if I’ve been reading about Bill Gates recently, I think £100 is absolutely nothing. Or if I’m thinking about my salary, I think well, that’s more than £100 On the other hand, if I’ve been thinking about small amounts of money, things that are just bought in a shop, then £100 might seem quite a big number. Similarly, the two weeks wait, that depends a lot on other amounts of waiting times you thought about. In particular, most importantly of course, it refers to how long you think other people have had to wait. So if you think that four weeks is the norm, you think two weeks, that’s pretty good.
If you think that 4 days is the norm, then two weeks seems pretty bad. So what this comparative way of thinking leads us to do, is to have extremely unstable, context-dependent judgements about whether we think something is a good or bad, as it were, offer in this case. But it just pushes your thoughts around all over the place. It makes us very contextually sensitive, very unstable creatures. So one thing a few people have been saying is that maybe calling this ‘instability’ is perhaps a little bit negative and there could be a more positive interpretation, which is, the mind isn’t necessarily unstable, it’s just flexible and it’s constantly learning.
It’s not that there is one answer to all of these questions lying deep in our minds, but there might be a few possible answers and we change it, and access it, and make differences depending on what the context says. Yes, that’s a fair point. Of course, the reason people tend to talk about instability, which does sound negative, and has a genuine certain negative connotation, which I think has a real basis to it, is because if you can catch people out as they move from one context to another context, then you can exploit them. Yeah, and I think we’re going to talk about this next week, I think. Yeah, that’s right, that’s going to come up, yes.
So watch this space for that. But the rough intuition to have in mind is, if there are two things, “A” and “B,” and in one context you prefer “A” to “B” and in another context you prefer “B” to “A,” then there’s a slight danger, maybe even a real danger that someone will go into one context and say– oh, you seem to prefer “A” to “B,” so you’ll give me a pound to switch from “B” to “A.” And then you go to the next context and they say– oh, you seem to prefer the opposite. If you give me a pound then we’ll switch back.
And then all you’ve got is you’ve got to where you started, but you’ve lost a couple of pounds. Now, that’s the kind of thing that economists get very worried about. Some people might think– well, the world is a complicated place, being flexible is a price well worth paying for the old devious trick that the economist might find. But we’ll have more on that next week as you say. I suppose it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between being flexible. You can be flexible without being inconsistent, and it seems like what a lot of these experiments suggest, it’s a bit worrying, is that people tend to be inconsistent.
You know they might prefer “A” to “B” in one framing, and “B” to “A” in another framing, which is perhaps, as you said, because of the exploitation worry like a little bit of uncertainty, but, as you said, we’ll talk a bit more about that in future weeks. Yes, that’s absolutely right. And it’s important to distinguish this kind of inconsistency, which is where, for example, I say, I prefer this way of treating a disease if you talk about the lives saved, but yet, I prefer this other way of treating the disease if instead I talk about the lives lost, where the actual situation is exactly the same. That seemed a bit odd.
On the other hand, it’s not odd at all to say that I prefer something like a drink to a cake when I’m thirsty. I prefer a cake to a drink when I’m hungry. So when the world is changing, you’re in a different situation, it’s absolutely fine to change your preferences. Of course, when you learn new information it’s absolutely fine to change your beliefs. The cases that are a bit more puzzling are the cases where you’re not changing them in the way that seems quite consistent with the information around you. There’s no real excuse for changing your beliefs. Yeah.
I mean the point is that, in those cases where, with the different descriptions of the disease, it’s not that the world is changing, its not that you’ve been given different diseases, it’s just that the way that the world is being presented to you is changing, which seems like it shouldn’t change your preferences, actually. Anyway, one other thing that I thought would be interesting to discuss on this is, the example of perfect pitch has been raised a few times. It’s potentially a counter example to the idea that we can’t judge anything in absolute terms.
It seems like some people actually do have perfect pitch and that that might be a case of really being able to, absolutely, judge the pitch of a note. It’s a super counter example. I think it is a real counter example. It’s very rare. Most people have to do a lot of work to actually learn to do it, so it doesn’t come very naturally for most people who have it. But after a lot of musical training if you’re the right person, perfect pitch is a very real phenomenon. Now, I wonder if it’s an exception that proves the rule, but we don’t really know the answer to this.
So it could be and probably is the case, and I’d say probably, this is my speculation, that pitch is special because of the way in which the ear works is not going to be perfectly the same, depending on which pitch you’re at. So the ear is kind of a big filter that makes it a very complicated processing on the auditory signal, and it’s not perfect. It’s a bit like an amplifier, that as you turn it up and down, suddenly things start to get distorted in weird ways.
Now, if that’s the case, if there was distortions inside the system, then as you move from one pitch to another, the signal your brain is receiving isn’t just changing in pitch, it’s actually changing in quality as well. So it’s a bit like with electric shocks. If I give you different electric shocks, if I go beyond a certain point, they start to run, as it were, all the way up your arm, or make you feel fuzzy. And all kinds of qualitative things start to change, and then you can detect much better.
So now this is purely speculative, but in a way that tries to maintain the completely comparative story, we’d have to suppose there’s some qualitative change in the signal due to some kind of distortion in the ear that is being picked up. We don’t know that for sure. We do know, at least have no evidence that there’s any equivalent of perfect pitch for any other cases. There’s no perfect weight. There’s no perfect loudness, perfect brightness. It seems to be unique, so that might be one explanation, but this is speculative. We don’t really know the answer. Right. Thanks Nick. So finally should we just talk a little bit about the experiment from this week, which hopefully, people have done. Yes.
So I’m just looking at the results here. The experiment this week was looking at estimating the cost, weight, height, and various things for a set of like objects and things that you’re familiar with. And you’re asked to give a range in which you thought there was like a 90% chance that you were correct. So you’re 90% sure that that range contains the correct answer. And what tends to be found with these experiments is that people are generally, pretty over-confident. It’s less than 90% of the time like the correct answer would fall within the range that you get essentially. So people are more confident that they are able to estimate this range than they should be.
And we certainly found that exact result with these experiments. It seemed like the majority of people were either, we’ve got a scale from not over-confident, moderate over-confidence, over-confident, and then completely wild. And there were five people in the not over-confident range and then the rest of the people, which was about another 50 or so or a little bit more, were all either moderately over-confident, very over-confident, or completely wild. So, we definitely have seen that effect. And then the other thing that we looked at is not just how confident were you, but was your confidence justified.
So were the people who were very confident right a lot of the time, and were the people who were less confident wrong a lot of the time. So were you judging you accuracy correctly? And again, the classic finding, which we’ve seen here is that there seems to be very little correlation between how confident you are and how accurate you are. And so, yeah, people who thought they were confident weren’t necessarily more accurate and vice-versa. Maybe you could say a little bit Nick about what this means more widely and how it ties into the mind is flat? Yes. So well certainly it’s a very general finding as you say. We’re all hopeless at these things.
And so if you’re happy and over-confident, don’t worry we’re all the same. I’m just the same, Jess would be just the same. It’s just the standard result. What it’s really telling us in this context, is how bad we are at absolute judgements. We just have no idea how long the Amazon is, or how heavy the Eiffel Tower is. We just haven’t got a clue about these things. It is very interesting that we don’t really realise how little clue we have. And one suggestion is that when we do this type of task, we try and pick out various possible answers so we think, lengths of rivers, say the Amazon.
You think, well, it could be maybe 3,000 miles long or maybe it’s about a thousand. You think about a few possible answers. And then when someone says– oh, I want you to be 90% sure that the right answer is in the range, you just think, out of the list you got, you just sort of think, well if I thought of 10 or perhaps 11 examples, I think well, I’ll just knock out the top one, and knock out the bottom one, and then that’s my range. Because I’ve got about 10. I don’t want to choose the top one because I think that might be too big, and I don’t want to use the bottom one, that seems too small.
There are various things wrong with that strategy. It’s very natural for us to do it. The various things wrong with it. One of which is, all the examples we thought of are ones that seem a bit like the answer we think is true. So if I’m thinking, how long is the Amazon? I wonder if it’s 3000, I wonder if it’s 2000, I wonder if it’s 2500? I’m thinking, oh crumbs, I thought it might be 3500. I’ll eliminate that because it’s my highest estimate. I’m forgetting that all of those answers are coming from my own model of how big the Amazon is.
And if it turns out to be completely different, if it were in fact, it isn’t of course, but if it were about 10,000 miles, and I’m completely wrong, I’m never going to generate that possibility. So this is actually, I think, a generally interesting thing that, when we think about how the world might be, whether we’re estimating things or just thinking about the future, or how are business is going to do, or how long we’re going to live, all of these things, we tend to be trapped in our current perception of the way the world is.
So given the way we see the world, we think– well, it could go like this, or like this, or like this, but it’s all the unknowns that we’re not thinking about, from Donald Rumsfeld’s famous unknown unknowns, that we just completely ignore. So the fact that we might be thinking about the world completely wrong then, and it might surprise us in all sorts of extreme ways just doesn’t cross our minds, and sort of can’t cross our mind because it’s not in our mind. So I think this we can’t really get out of.
It’s useful to at least acknowledge in some sense that there are unknown unknowns, that there are things that we don’t have access to in our minds, but it’s difficult to do that. Right. Yes. I think that’s right. Difficult to overcome it. OK. Well, thank you very much Jess, and I hope that’s been useful for everyone, and we will see you again next week.

In the week 2 round-up video we will look at some of the most popular topics, and Nick and Jess will be discussing some of the most frequently asked questions from that week.

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The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

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