Far sighted

Every couple of years, I seem to go back and look at “decision making” books that have arrived in my local library. I clearly take a broad view of decision making. This time I came up with Farsighted, Elastic, and the Mind is Flat.  The first two books were definitely written to be popular books with the third less so. They share quite a bit. They all rely quite a bit on illustrations or questionnaires that show the peculiarities and shortcomings of our minds. They all rely on literature to explain their cases on how our minds work.  Farsighted uses  George Eliot and MiddlemarchElastic uses Jonathan Franzen and mentions his book Corrections. The Mind is Flat uses Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. 

Interestingly, the books have good indices and there is next to zero overlap in the cites and references. Leonard Mlodinow in Elastic mentions that Keith Holyoak helped him with the book, but none of Holyoak’s work is referenced. (See posts Bidirectional Reasoning or Metaphor.) Nick Chater, the author of The Mind is Flat–the Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain, is on the faculty of Warwick University, but he does not mention his countrymen Andy Clark (See post Prediction Machine.) or Karl Friston ( See post Confidence Part III.) or Jakob Hohwy (See post Cognitive Penetration.). Chater cites much research, but much of it is not particularly current. He would have especially benefited from Robin Hogarth’s work on intuition. And to make this personal, none of them seem to read what I have read. Both Farsighted and Elastic are all in with the existence of a “default network” while Chater does not think so. I will look at Farsighted in this post and look at Elastic and the Mind is Flat in future posts.

Farsighted, How we Make the Decisions that Matter the Most, was written by Steven Johnson, Riverdale Books, New York, 2018. This is interesting to read for its examples, but the insights are limited.  The Ben Franklin and Charles Darwin weighted pros and cons decision processes are familiar, but presented well. The process of the bin Laden raid is examined in depth. He looks at the question of whether or not we should try to contact intelligent life in the universe (SETI v METI). He talks about stakeholder charettes, expert roles, simulations, games, scenario plans, red teams, premortems, and linear value modeling.

My favorite portion of the book is under the heading:  MULLING starting on page 142. Johnson notes that most of us end up making complex decisions without actually doing any math. He suggests that if we have done a thorough job working through the mapping and predicting phases, the deciding phase often becomes evident. Steven Johnson states:

This, too, is one of those places where the brain’s default network is so important. Your mind is amazingly gifted at mulling over a complicated decision, imagining how it might affect other people, imagining how you yourself might respond to different outcomes. We all make those intuitive scenario plans as a background process with extraordinary skill.

This is my favorite sentence: “So the mapping and predicting stages of a complex choice are really about giving the default network more material to process.” Although my favorite experts on intuition, Robin Hogarth, Andreas Glockner, Timothy Betsch, Marc Jekel, are not referenced in the index, they would agree with this characterization. From post Intuition in J-DM:

Intuitive processes:

  1. Are only marginally constrained by cognitive capacity.
  2. Use all pieces of information that are momentarily activated from memory and salient in the environment.
  3. Share with analytic processes by performing different things.
  4. Handle output formation. This means combining input information and producing a judgment or preference.