Sunday, February 1, 2009

How we think

The way humans think is different from how computers think. Our cognitive abilities are designed with certain flaws. One clear example of this is called “source monitoring” i.e. we can’t always remember the source of our information. A more important way in which our thinking is different from that of a computer is that our thinking process is often colored with emotion. To demonstrate this let me explain the two types of thinking humans are capable of:
1. Narrative thought
2. Propositional thought

Narrative thought is based on episodic memory, it has a story like aspect to it. For example when we think about going to a party we imagine ourselves there and ask “am I going to have fun?”, “who is going to be there?”. Such thinking unfortunately has the power of running over the facts of the situation. For example if you ask an average person whether traveling in a plane makes him more anxious than traveling in a car most people who know that the statistical chances of death in a car are higher than in a plane would still tell you that traveling in a plane makes them more anxious simply because the narrative of a plane accident is more scary.

Propositional thought is problem set kind of thinking, mathematical for example. For me writing code to make a “notepad application” would involve propositional thought not narrative thought. For example if you write down a problem on a piece of paper and “think it through” by taking out the “emotional” aspect of things and think in “realistic” terms the chances that you will arrive at a sound conclusion are higher. This then is “factual thinking”.

Examples of narrative thought vs. propositional thought

1. Politics: In the US presidential election one candidate could use the “employment statistic” to show how well the government’s policies were while the other candidate could use the example of one individual who was “wronged” by the system (as a fault more of his own more than that of the system) and leverage narrative thought for the buy-in of the voters.

2. Car vs. plane example: Riskier to travel in a car but more scared of traveling in a plane!

3. Lottery example: The probability of winning is next to impossible however the stakes are so high you still play. This is against propositional logic but one is lured by narrative thinking.

4. Marketing surveys: One should not use ‘loaded terms’ because you start to bias the reader because of his ability of narrative thought.

5. Socializing
A) One could leverage people’s “narrative thinking” abilities! Machiavelli would say: lure them by giving them half-truths, which is probably what Hitler did! He was the witch-doctor for the Nazis and gave them an integrated view that had flaws that people did not question!
B) Hazrat Ali would say: leverage from the power of eloquence based on truth! If one becomes articulate enough, if truth becomes clear to a person then he can do this.

Source: MIT Open Courseware, Introduction to psychology lecture on “How do we think”.

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