Have I made a mistake?

Why is the first paragraph of this column so important? That is easy to answer. If the first paragraph sounds sufficiently interesting you are more likely to read on. And, providing that your interest continues as we get into the thick of it, you will read to the end. But we may not be aware that this may be a simple instance of how evolution frequently leads us into error. You may like to consider the most usual ways where psychologists tell us we tend to go wrong.

My first example is known as fight or flight. For our pre human ancestors the safest response to any threat was either to prepare immediate defence or to escape from the situation. So our brains learnt to respond instantly, and, even before our conscious thinking, our bodies reacted – for example, a possible danger triggered the adrenalin needed for swift action. Fortunately we don’t meet such threats too often, but our ability to digest our first reactions, and our tendency to maintain them is still with us. For example, the initial impression of a candidate applying for a position can influence the final decision, even in the light of contradictory evidence.

Physical appearance can alter the verdict of a jury or the size of damages. The friendships and the relationships we develop can be affected for better or worse.
Another common source of potential error is confirmation bias. When we have taken a definite view on some issue or another we are liable to maximise the evidence which supports our belief and to minimise the evidence against it. A classic example is climate change. That there were opposing sides to the debate was easy to understand initially but, given the mounting evidence, it is no longer so. Yet there are still those who believe that the claim of likely climate change is some sort of international conspiracy. Their patron saint appears to be President Trump. We may often meet confirmation bias in religious discussions, and we are more likely to be aware of the evidence which supports our beliefs than the evidence which opposes them.

I have personal experience of what are called fixation errors. I may well get stuck when I am drafting a column: what should the next paragraph be?; how is the darn thing going to end?; why did I ever start it? Then I took the advice of Linda Blair (a clinical psychologist, google her). She demonstrated, in a Telegraph article, the value of deliberately switching from one task to another on a regular basis. The studies showed that this regime produced better results than sticking to the first task until completion. It has often saved my life. Since then I have reinforced this through deliberate methods of freeing my brain, allowing it to present me with a range of entirely new ideas.

In theory the broader and wider our experience the better off our decisions should be. But there is a danger that our memories become selective. For instance, following a disappointing holiday in a foreign country, we might carry a general idea about that country for ever afterwards. We may do the same with staff: men versus women, graduates versus non graduates, Irish versus Scottish, may give us long term firm opinions from a single instance in our experience. Prejudice rather than thought out and researched views may well be guiding us.

Which! Magazine (November 2018) has some excellent material about purchasing, on line or in store. The sellers make good use of comparisons – a common source of error. For a simple example, an expensive television may be deliberately placed by a cheaper one – and by comparison the cheaper one seems a bargain. This is reinforced by suggesting that a quick purchase is essential. Our fear of loss (twice as powerful in its influence as the attraction of gain) may rush us into error. It seems odd that respectable businesses should use such ingenious traps to deceive us.

Married or female priests, adultery in second marriages, contraception, homosexuality, clericalism are all issues discussed today. Have your views on any of these been modified in the last 20 years? If so, what has altered your mind? It may be rigorous logic or further information. But it is also likely to have been influenced by the views of others. It is hard to be an outlier; it’s more comfortable, and consistent with evolution, to be in line with people like us. It has been suggested that our tendency to make common judgments is unique to us as a race and a reason for our success, compared for instance with the Neanderthals. Annoyingly, if your views have not changed over 20 years you will then have to consider whether your brain has been active at all.

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Have I made a mistake?

  1. galerimo says:

    Hard to see how the fight or flight reaction learned from our human ancestors can be a mistake, attributable to an evolution that “frequently leads us into error”. Everything about it, as a choice, seems right.

    First impressions and appearances certainly are factors in our decision making as is our bias in favour of closely held views but are we really doomed to error because of them? Judging a book by its cover is elementary in decision-making. We quickly learn not to rely on it.

    Thinking things out and researching material is hardly any guarantee of freedom from making mistakes.

    Someone once described principle as a rationalised bias.

    Clear headed logical thinking, proposed here as a way to overcome the dumbing down effect of clever sales talk or narrow minded thinking, can be self serving and therefore just as devious.

    Logic, it is said, is like a taxi – you jump into it and tell it wherever it is you want to go.

    Modifying views on anything is more likely to be the result of a maturing process. Sometimes it can come with age. Tolerances improve with the slow growth of self-acceptance, expanding awareness and openness to mystery.

    John Henry Newman once observed that it takes about one hundred years to come to any real acceptance of the teaching of a general Council of the Catholic Church.

    Impulse, intuition, coincidence, creative imagination, instinct, the hunch and the importance of being just plain, fast asleep are all just as likely to protect us from mistaken thinking as any contrived logic or intentioned research.

    Many of the devious psychologists accused here of manipulating our minds will admit that more is happening on the subconscious than in our conscious minds.

    But if you are looking to know if we really do modify our thinking about anything, look no further than our sainted John Paul II, of happy memory.

    After a period of seventeen years of a non-collegial style papacy he surprised everyone in the encyclical ‘Ut Unum Sint’, when he asked theologians of the Orthodox Church to help him find a way of exercising primacy as it had been during the first millennium of Christianity.

    A clear change of view if ever there was one and a miracle in itself sufficient for canonization!

    • Alan says:

      galerimo – “Logic, it is said, is like a taxi – you jump into it and tell it wherever it is you want to go.”

      I don’t remember ever having heard that said before your post. Nor anything remotely like it. Searching for any example of it online leads me to articles about what it is like to be a taxi driver! Do you have any reference I could go to for a source or a context?

      Is this an idea/phrase that anyone else is familiar with?

      • David Smith says:

        Alan writes:

        // Is this an idea/phrase that anyone else is familiar with? //

        The analogy is new to me, too. But the informing idea is familiar. It’s long seemed odd to me that more people seem not to be aware of it. A large part of why they’re not, I suspect, is that we live in an excessively articulate society, one in which the measure of an individual’s worth has come to be the quantity of his verbal output. That is clearly such a feeble basis for a value system that our instinctive mind protects our logical mind from realizing it. Self-protection.

      • galerimo says:

        Thank you Alan.

        It comes from a book I read recently.
        I have read three books recently.
        Therefore it comes from one of those.

        (And the three books were, ‘Shantaram’, ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’, and ‘The Kindly Ones’).

        I use the impersonal passive voice,’it is said that…’ to show that, while I am unable to gave the source precisely, the idea is not an original one of my own.

        That leaves the reader free to disregard the idea as being of little substance and not well founded or to consider it purely on its own merits, within the context of the argument.

        Unlike my references to John Henry Newman and Saint John Paul II. Because they are named, the source of their ideas can be acknowledged, if required.

    • David Smith says:

      Galerimo writes:

      // Someone once described principle as a rationalised bias.

      Clear headed logical thinking, proposed here as a way to overcome the dumbing down effect of clever sales talk or narrow minded thinking, can be self serving and therefore just as devious.

      Logic, it is said, is like a taxi – you jump into it and tell it wherever it is you want to go. //

      Nicely said.

      Humans get through life safely by trusting their hunches hundreds of thousands of times a day. Very little that we think or do requires careful, conscious, detailed thought. The rational, logical mind is laid on top of the instinctive mind. It comes into play only when there’s the luxury of time to think things through. And since the rational mind is used only when there’s leisure to accommodate it, it relies on the instinctive mind to guide it. The instinctive, hunch-filled mind is the parent; the logical, rational mind is the child.

      This isn’t bad. It’s just the way we’re built. It’s what and who we are. To intentionally work the logical mind harder to overcome what might seem flaws in the workings of the instinctive mind may seem an attractive way to improve outcomes, and it can help sometimes. Maybe often. I think how often probably depends on the individual. Some of us are more inclined than others to exercise their capacity and talent for logical thinking.

      But all of us have the capacity for logical thinking, and it seems to me likely that the more leisure time we have the more likely that capacity will out. In societies in which the great majority of humans find themselves with an abundance of leisure time, there’s likely to be a great deal of logical thinking going on.

      I’m rambling. This is good a place to stop as any.

  2. Alasdair says:

    In his popular book “The Chimp Paradox” Prof Steve Peters explains that we act primarily through two lobes of the brain: 1) the Limbic which he renames the Chimp Brain and 2) the Frontal, which he renames the Human Brain.
    The Chimp Brain is concerned exclusively with self-survival and perpetuation of the species, including the fight or flight instinct. It may act in an impulsive, irrational, emotional, paranoid way and may produce cruel and violent actions in response to incorrectly perceived threats.
    The Human Brain is concerned with things like self-fulfillment, and living in a harmonious society – beyond simply material considerations. It operates in an evidence-based plan-and-action manner rather than impulsively.

  3. David Smith says:

    Alisdair writes:

    // In his popular book “The Chimp Paradox” Prof Steve Peters explains that we act primarily through two lobes of the brain //

    But in day-to-day reality, outside X’s lab and Y’s papers and books, a human is all of a single piece. Both X and Y, I suppose, would agree that within the human unit, the brain is a single organ. Some of its thinking is immediate, unconscious or almost so, and some is more or less delayed. When driving, I swerve quickly, almost instinctively to avoid hitting an obstacle in the road, but once the danger has passed, I take longer to think about returning the car to the center of the lane, reflecting on what just happened, and planning the rest of my journey.

    When I swerved, it was not because I was mad at (fight) or frightened by (flight) the obstacle, but because I realized in a flash that hitting it would bring about consequences that neither I nor the obstacle (if it was sentient) would have been pleased with. Experience had given me foreknowledge of the possible consequences and had prepared me for eventualities like this.

    • Alasdair says:

      David,
      The driving scenario you describe illustrates the Chimp Paradox nicely. Your Chimp brain took control of the situation (“almost instinctively”) when there wasn’t any time for analysis. Then – with the main danger over, your Human brain took over to reduce the chance of a re-occurrence. Had the Human brain not clicked in in time you might have acted with anger, which of course you didn’t.
      The “experience and foreknowledge” resides in a 3rd part of the brain that Peters calls the Computer. This is a resource base which both the Chimp and the Human can access as required.
      Clearly all of this is not a rigorous description of the brain. It is a “model” that Peters proposes to assist people with mind management.
      The ascent of the great cliff El Capitan by Alex Honnold, solo and without ropes or climbing aids (see “Free Solo”), is a supreme example of mind management.

  4. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // You may like to consider the most usual ways where psychologists tell us we tend to go wrong. //

    He goes on to list a few types of distractions and impulses that lead us away from reaching goals we’ve set ourselves. Our conscious mind sets us a task, but then our unconscious mind tempts us to change the terms of the task. We say we’ll make this choice, bounded by these limitations, but as we proceed we find that those limitations cause us discomfort, so we change them to lessen or to eliminate the discomfort. When we finally reach our goal, it may be substantially different from it was when we first planned to reach it. It may have improved but, just as likely, it may have deteriorated. And, because we have a great capacity for self-deception, we may be unaware of the change.

    Quentin puts this into a quasi-scientific context – “psychologists tell us” – but I wonder whether doing so adds anything we need to know. Common sense carries us pretty far along the path to self-understanding all by itself. But in these times, at least in the Western world, anything having to do with the word “science” receives from the media and from the social class of people who determine what ideas will be sanctioned and promoted by the media and the establishment a patina of superiority. Common sense – the understanding and wisdom of the man in the street – is frowned upon. Nothing, no matter how trivial, is true unless it’s been sanctioned by scientists.

    It’s always healthy for us to sit back regularly, from time to time, and to reflect on who we are and on how we might best work to make ourselves a better person, more focused, more disciplined, more self-critical, more humane. To this end, Quentin’s prod is welcome, at least to me. Thanks.

  5. ignatius says:

    If any of you have ever been lost on a mountain you will discover that logic sits quite well with panic..the two going in tandem happily down the hill.

    • David Smith says:

      Happily if down the hill is where you want to go.

      I was lost in a wood once. Logic was probably of some use in getting out, but so, I’m sure were luck and instinct.

      • Alasdair says:

        “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!”

    • Alasdair says:

      Yes indeed. Uphill is often no problem. You go uphill until you reach the top. Leaving the summit however you have a 360 degree range of options, all of them downhill, many of which could take you into a wrong, uninhabited valley with no road, or even into the wrong country!

  6. Alan says:

    I feel the analogy about logic is a bit wide of the mark. I would have likened logic more to the road the taxi is on. You can, by accident or design, stray from that route. Perhaps you don’t want to go where the road leads. Perhaps you lose your way while trying to following it. Maybe you just want to explore alternatives. But, no matter why you end up somewhere else and regardless of where you wanted to go, the road leads to specific destinations.

    • Ignatius says:

      Hmmm I quite like the taxi image. This is because logic can be easily false so the road taken is entirely dependent on the intended destination. The implication being that logic is not usually a matter of objectivity but simply one of method, I think the same is often said of statistics.

    • Alan says:

      Ignatius – “This is because logic can be easily false so the road taken is entirely dependent on the intended destination.”

      I’m not sure what you mean by “false”. Could you explain and could you offer an example.

      I assume you don’t mean “not logical” as that would be a contradiction in terms. Do you mean someone making what they think is a logical argument towards a preferred conclusion but it not actually being logical?

      Am I being too strict in my definition of the term? – “reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity”. This is the road I mean. People can fail to follow it, but I don’t understand how it can be “false” in itself.

      • David Smith says:

        Logic works fine for the world of things. For abstractions, not fine.

      • Alan says:

        David,

        I have seen some logic problems that included abstract subjects. I certainly don’t think that logic is applicable to any question though. However, where it is applicable, I cannot imagine how it could be used to reach any desired conclusion/destination. Do you feel that this is possible as the original taxi analogy suggests? Can you think of an example?

    • Alan says:

      Perhaps people are meaning a logical argument based on false premises potentially leading to a false conclusion.

      • Coconuts says:

        I thought something like that. Usually you can make logic lead you wherever you want by using the ‘right’ (at least for your desired destination) premises.

      • David Smith says:

        Alan writes:

        // Perhaps people are meaning a logical argument based on false premises potentially leading to a false conclusion. //

        Sure. And with anything abstract, non-material, non-measurable, your premises are whatever you want them to be.

  7. Alasdair says:

    Quentin says “if your views have not changed over 20 years you will then have to consider whether your brain has been active at all”.
    I have to say that my views have not changed, by and large, within that time scale or even much longer. My views were perhaps “liberal and progressive” in the 80’s and are now middle-of -the-road. My views haven’t changed but mainstream has caught up.
    Quentin also says “a common source of potential error is confirmation bias. When we have taken a definite view on some issue or another, we are liable to maximise the evidence which supports our belief and to minimise the evidence against”.
    Firstly, I have not taken a definite view on anything – all my views are fully open to change and might well do so by dinner time this evening. There are also big issues about which I have been unable to form a view. I have often actively sought out the “evidence” for the opposing views. So my views just happen not to have changed due to the, so far, paucity, vacuousness, faulty logic, political questionability, lack of knowledge, confirmation bias, and fatal flaws informing the opposing views on offer.
    For example, a few years ago I must have read at least 6 books from what is loosely called the New Atheist camp – almost one after the other. This had zero effect on my Christian belief, for all, and more, of the reasons above. Most of these books have been skillfully deconstructed by christian apologists (and even by other atheists!) but most of the readers of this blog, or for that matter any bright sixth-former, could have come to the same conclusion even without that help.

  8. David Smith says:

    Alan writes:

    // David,

    I have seen some logic problems that included abstract subjects. I certainly don’t think that logic is applicable to any question though. However, where it is applicable, I cannot imagine how it could be used to reach any desired conclusion/destination. Do you feel that this is possible as the original taxi analogy suggests? Can you think of an example? //

    Alan, I’ll skirt your question for now. Still thinking about it. I’m sure there are good examples. I’ll try to come up with at least one.

    It seems to me that logic can be unquestionably valid only when its conclusions are subject to proof. Since you can’t prove the validity of abstractions, logic, when it’s applied to abstractions, though it may be useful in keeping the mind focused on an end, cannot provide definitive answers. It may seem to point clearly to an answer, but in the end, it’s up to the individual whether or not to accept that as adequate.

    Of course, since, in reality, to the human mind there can be no such things as proof and truth, logic can’t really prove anything. All the knowledge of science is, in the end, merely provisional. Stuff works with such seemingly iron-clad predictability that we assume that our “laws” are true.

    Through a glass darkly.

  9. galerimo says:

    My views have definitely changed over the past 20 years. And definitely after major surgery only a few years ago. Mind changes only come with the experience of pain – nothing to do with education or reason.

    Regarding my views I have no doubt they are even more erroneous now. No way 20 years ago could I have admitted to the hatred, raging anger, unbridled driven lust, deep deep terror, resentment and self destructiveness that among a host of other feelings, I live with daily.

    Rarely would they have been admitted even to consciousness and then only out of sheer exhaustion or for the very brief purposes of salvation. Never for resolution and only occasionally for absolution. And all the while they were just feelings.

    Today I embrace all of my share in humanity both the dark side and the other dark side.

    I know sadness and joy so deeply and so well at this end stage of my life.

    This sadness and joy comes to me in this different stance of mine now that my views have changed around my unrecognised and greatly unrealised humanity and the acess I have now been given to it for joy and blessing.

    I can’t even fake prayer anymore. I pray daily just to survive.

    . My answer to ‘have I made a mistake? Is yes but it’s a yes that barely covers it.

    I don’t think I’ll post this.

    • ignatius says:

      Galerimo:
      “Today I embrace all of my share in humanity both the dark side and the other dark side.”
      Curious to know what this means in practice…what happens when,say, you lose your temper with the bus conductor? Do you hurl him from the moving vehicle with great relish or, like the rest of us still, try to defuse and avoid a confrontation?…just curious you understand. 🙂

  10. John Candido says:

    This topic piqued my interest when it started considering what the psychologist mentioned to Quentin about changing one’s attention is helpful to what you are presently doing.

    Most people naturally prefer to understand what a lecturer or a friend is talking about, as it makes the lessen or conversation more enjoyable, and it is easier to remember any matter that you understand in comparison to any concept that you do not understand.

    Quickly understanding complex material is a little unreasonable of course, and lots of students do not like to learn something unknown to them previously unless they comprehend the new idea as quickly as possible, despite it being unfamiliar to them.

    A lack of comprehension is something that students have to cope with, and are forced at times to discipline themselves to accept matters as they are, and hope that another teacher, student, or textbook, can explain a challenging idea that they do not understand, and shorten the time that they are learning matters by rote.

    Not understanding what they are doing but obediently copying what the lecturer is saying or doing because of the subject’s complexity and newness, is not a pleasant matter for any student and can be a source of stress.

    I recently saw a YouTube video about a simple strategy to help one understand a complex idea in mathematics over time.

    There is nothing magical about the strategy, and it applies to any subject or skill area.

    If a student was never told about this and never discovered it as evident through their self-awareness and experience, I could see their lives being more stressful compared to other students who consciously use this strategy without a thought.

    The comprehension strategy is so obvious that any teaching institution can be ‘forgiven’ for never mentioning it to any student, as it would have been a given that all students would have become aware of it as a function of being a student.

    If one were learning mathematics, you are still required to absorb whatever methods are involved in solving any problem, even if you do not understand what you are doing.

    One should look at learning these techniques as a scaffold or step to eventually understanding what you are doing.

    Barbara Oakley is an academic engineer who is the author of ‘Mindshift’ and ‘A Mind for Numbers’.

    When you do not understand a complicated idea, the way of eventually understanding it is to review it in a day or two, without any expectation that you will comprehend it by then.

    Reviewing the poorly understood material is repeated again and again, with hours or days between reviews.

    The essential attitude in reviewing any complicated matter is no expectation of finally understanding the inherent complexity of the idea, in any review.

    This relaxed attitude or expectation is essential.

    The list of activities that any student can do between reviews is exhaustive.

    Visiting the zoo or a wildlife sanctuary, seeing friends, attending a music concert, listening to an unrelated lecture or discussion about a public issue on the radio or television, walking, swimming, playing chess etc.

    Given patience and time, these natural, ordinary, and unforced reviews have the effect of allowing your mind to ‘work’ on these difficult concepts while focussed on unrelated matters.

    Eventually, the ‘penny’ drops by itself without forcing the issue, and comprehension can occur in an ‘aha’ moment or flash of insight.

    If only I had this drummed into me 100 times, who knows what I might have achieved.

    John Nolan, Quentin, or anyone else with any thoughts, please?

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