Common sense is often our enemy. Our intuitions often blind us. Yes, I am aware of recent popular books pointing out the values of these unconscious heuristics in terms of their speed, and their uncanny accuracy, but intuition also has its dark side. In this post I want to illustrate the dark side using three areas where common sense opinions can comfortably delude us: economics, language & religion.
Yesterday, “Overcoming Bias‘s Robin Hanson gave us Americans a badly needed taste of economic hopefulness. Click on the graph below to see how the USA has significantly better ratings for firm management than most other countries.
Hanson’s article goes further with lots of other important economic facts. Yes, I know, this sort of gives away some of my political leanings. I know that politics and economics is very divisive and I absolutely don’t want a thread to develop on economics or politics. But I do want to say that I feel a big problem with economics is that everyone has an opinion about it — and those opinions are largely based on intuitions. And unfortunately, large scale economic systems are so complex, that common-sense intuitions are usually wrong. In fact, Robin Hanson (a CMU professor of economics) has an earlier post (“Ignorance about Intuitions“) discussing the complexity of intuition.
In that post, Hanson contrasts his image of beliefs with his intellectual boxing partner Byran Caplan.
We find ourselves managing complex networks of beliefs. Bryan’s picture seems to be of a long metal chain linked at only one end to a solid foundation; chains of reasoning mainly introduce errors, so we do best to find and hold close to our few most confident intuitions. My picture is more like Quine‘s “fabric,” a large hammock made of string tied to hundreds of leaves of invisible trees; we can’t trust each leaf much, but even so we can stay aloft by connecting each piece of string to many others and continually checking for and repairing broken strings.
It was fun to read this paragraph because it is exactly how I envision my web of beliefs. And it is for this reason that I have named my blog “Triangulations”. Hanson does a good job showing his cautious use of intuition and hints at methodologies to check it.
On the blogs of both believer and non-believer we see people arguing positions based on their intuitions. “Pooling of Ignorance” is one of our favorite habits. It is, however, important to realize the limits of our intuitions — be you an Atheist, a Christian and any other opinionated person (ie., all of us).
You see, since people tend to deal with economic issues daily in their practical life, they also tend to have strong opinions about economics even thought they may have not studied the various differing views of economics. “After all,” they may think, “I do it every day and I am successful. How wrong can I be?” But we can be surprisingly wrong about our opinions and still very successful or happy. Similar to economics, language and religion are areas we form opinions because we have encountered and made decisions about them our whole lives. Yet, could our common sense opinions be wrong?
Steven Pinker shows how our intuitions about something as simple as language can be very wrong. I love the following opening in Pinker’s book. His paragraph ensnared me and then challenged me and I had to finish the book.
Most educated people already have opinions about language. They know that it is man’s most important cultural invention, the quintessential example of his capacity to use symbols, and a biologically unprecedented event irrevocably separating him from other animals. They know that language pervades thought, with different languages causing their speakers to construe reality in different ways. They know that children learn to talk from role models and caregivers. They know that grammatical sophistication used to be nurtured in the schools, but sagging educational standards and the debasement of popular culture have led to frightening decline in the ability of the average person to construct a grammatical sentence. …..
In the pages that follow, I will try to convince you that every one of these common opinions is wrong!
— Steven Pinker (Cognitive Scientist: “The Language Instinct: How the mind creates Language“, 1994 , pg 17-18)
The rest of Pinker’s book does a superb job illustrating and arguing his points. In my next post I will explore one of these false language intuitions.
Pascal Boyer opens his book with a similar observation about the obstacle common sense notions have set up for his research in religion.
What is the origin of religious ideas? Why is it that we can find them wherever we go and it would seem, as far back in the past as we can see? The best place to start is with our spontaneous, commonsense answers to the question of origins. Everybody seems to have some intuition about the origins of religion. Indeed, psychologists and anthropologists who like me study how mental processes create relion face the minor occupational hazard of constantly runn
ing into people who think that they already have a perfectly adequate solution to the problem. They are often quite willing to impart their wisdom and sometimes imply that further work on this question is, if not altogether furtile, at least certainly undemanding. If you say “I use genetic algorithms to produce computationally efficient cellular automata,” people se quite clearly that doing that kind of thing probably requires some effort.
But tell them that you are in the business of “explaining religion,” they often do not see what is so complicated or difficult about it. Most people have some idea of why there is religion, what religion gives people, why they are sometimes so strongly attached to their religious beliefs, and so on. These common intuitions offer a real Chanllenge. Obviously, if they are sufficient, there is no point in having a complex theory of religion. If as I am afraid is more likely, they are less than perfect, then our new account should be at least as good as the intuitions it is supposed to replace.
Most accounts of the origins of religion emphasize one of the following suggestions: human minds demand explanations, human hearts seek comfort, human society requires order, human intellect is illusion-prone. … Discussing each of the common intuitions in more detail, we will see that they all fail to tell us why we have religion and why it is it the way it is.
—Pascal Boyer (Anthropologist: “Religion Explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought“, 2001, pg 4-5)
I thought putting these three examples together would make an interesting illustration of how our everyday experiences trick us into intuitions that may be inaccurate and stubborn. Today I briefly touched on economics, religion and language but there are many other areas like sex, politics and self to mention a few. My experience has been that none of us are exempt from the hypnotic voice of intuition. I will end with this quote:
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.”
— Richard Feynman (Physicist, Caltech commencement address, 1974)
Questions for readers:
- Have you ever altered one of your common sense intuitions?
- What common sense intuition of other people (besides religion) is an obstacle for you?