Nick Chater is the author of The Mind is Flat–the Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2019. He is a professor of behavioral science at the Warwick Business School. The book is two parts and overall it is as ambitious as it is simple. The first part is the most convincing. He shows how misguided we are on our perceptions, emotions, and decision making. Our vision seems to provide us with a full fledged model of our environment, when we really only can focus on a very small area with our furtive eye movements providing the impression of a complete detailed picture. Our emotions do not well up from deep inside, but are the results of in-the-moment interpretations based on the situation we are in, and highly ambiguous evidence from our own bodily state. Chater sees our beliefs, desires, and hopes as just as much inventions as our favorite fictional characters. Introspection does not work, because there is nothing to look at. We are imaginative creatures with minds that pretty much do everything on the fly. We improvise so our decision making is inconsistent as are our preferences.
This post is based on the book, Elastic–Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change by Leonard Mlodinow, Pantheon Books, New York, 2018. Mlodinow is a physicist and worked with Stephen Hawking. His previous book Subliminal evidently gave him considerable access to interesting people like Seth MacFarlane. He mentions that Stephen Hawking’s pace of communicating was at best six words a minute with public presentations being done ahead of time. Mlodinow notes that this slowing of the pace of a conversation is actually quite helpful in forcing you to consider the words as opposed to thinking of what you are going to say while the other person is talking so that you can have an instant response.
Taming Uncertainty by Ralph Hertwig (See posts Dialectical Bootstrapping and Harnessing the Inner Crowd.), Timothy J Pleskac (See post Risk Reward Heuristic.), Thorsten Pachur (See post Emotion and Risky Choice.) and the Center for Adaptive Rationality, MIT Press, 2019, is a new compendium that I found accidentally in a public library. There is plenty of interesting reading in the book. It takes the adaptive toolbox approach as opposed to the Swiss Army Knife . The book gets back cover raves from Cass Sunstein (See posts Going to Extremes, Confidence, Part 1.), Nick Chater, and Gerd Gigerenzer (See post Gigerenzer–Risk Saavy, and others.). I like the pieces, but not the whole.
In Confidence, Part II, the authors conclude that confidence is computed continuously, online, throughout the decision making process, thus lending support to models of the mind as a device that computes with probabilistic estimates and probability distributions.
The Embodied Mind
One such explanation is that of predictive processing/embodied mind. Andy Clark, Jacob Hohwy, and Karl Friston have all helped to weave together this concept. Our minds are blends of top down and bottom up processing where error messages and the effort to fix those errors makes it possible for us to engage the world. According to the embodied mind model, our minds do not just reside in our heads. Our bodies determine how we interact with the world and how we shape our world so that we can predict better. Our evolutionary limitations have much to do with how our minds work. One example provided by Andy Clark and Barbara Webb is a robot without any brain imitating human walking nearly perfectly (video go to 2:40). Now how does this tie into confidence? Confidence at a conscious level is the extent of our belief that our decisions are correct. But the same thing is going on as a fundamental part of perception and action. Estimating the certainty of our own prediction error signals of our own mental states and processes is as Clark notes: “clearly a delicate and tricky business. For it is the prediction error signal that…gets to ‘carry the news’.”
Confidence is defined as our degree of belief that a certain thought or action is correct. There is confidence in your own individual decisions or perceptions and then the between person confidence where you defer your own decision making to someone else.
Why am I thinking of confidence? An article by Cass Sunstein explains it well. The article appeared in Bloomberg, Politics & Policy, October 18, 2018, Bloomberg Opinion, “Donald Trump is Amazing. Here’s the Science to Prove It.”
This post is based on a paper written by Andy Clark, author of Surfing Uncertainty (See Paper Predictive Processing for a fuller treatment.), “A nice surprise? Predictive processing and the active pursuit of novelty,” that appeared in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, pp. 1-14. DOI: 10.1007/s11097-017-9525-z. For me this is a chance to learn how Andy Clark has polished up his arguments since his book. It also strikes me as connected to my recent posts on Curiosity and Creativity.
Clark and Friston (See post The Prediction Machine) depict human brains as devices that minimize prediction error signals: signals that encode the difference between actual and expected sensory simulations. But we know that we are attracted to the unexpected. We humans often seem to actively seek out surprising events, deliberately seeking novel and exciting streams of sensory stimulation. So how does that square with the idea of minimizing prediction error.
Understanding or inferring the intentions, feelings and beliefs of others is a hallmark of human social cognition often referred to as having a Theory of Mind. ToM has been described as a cognitive ability to infer the intentions and beliefs of others, through processing of their physical appearance, clothes, bodily and facial expressions. Of course, the repertoire of hypotheses of our ToM is borrowed from the hypotheses that cause our own behavior.
But how can processing of internal visceral/autonomic information (interoception) contribute to the understanding of others’ intentions? The authors consider interoceptive inference as a special case of active inference. Friston (see post Prediction Error Minimization) has theorized that the goal of the brain is to minimize prediction error and that this can be achieved both by changing predictions to match the observed data and, via action, changing the sensory input to match predictions. When you drop the knife and then catch it with the other hand, you are using active inference.
This post is based on a comment paper: “Honest People Tend to Use Less–Not More—Profanity: Comment on Feldman et al.’s (2017) Study,” that appeared in Social Psychological and Personality Science 1-5 and was written by R. E. de Vries, B. E. Hilbig, Ingo Zettler, P. D. Dunlop, D. Holtrop, K. Lee, and M. C. Ashton. Why would honesty suddenly be important with respect to decision making when I have largely ignored it in the past? You will have to figure that out for yourself. It reminded me that most of our decision making machinery is based on relative differences. We compare, but we are not so good at absolutes. Thus, when you get a relentless fearless liar, the relative differences are widened and this is likely to spread out what seems to be a reasonable decision.
This post is based on a paper: “The Two Settings of Kind and Wicked Learning Environments” written by Robin M. Hogarth, Tomás Lejarraga, and Emre Soyer that appeared in Current Directions in Psychological Science 2015, Vol. 24(5) 379–385. Hogarth created the idea of kind and wicked learning environments and it is discussed in his book Educating Intuition.
Hogarth et al state that inference involves two settings: In the first, information is acquired (learning); in the second, it is applied (predictions or choices). Kind learning environments involve close matches between the informational elements in the two settings and are a necessary condition for accurate inferences. Wicked learning environments involve mismatches.
This post is based on a paper: “Learning from experience in nonlinear environments: Evidence from a competition scenario,” authored by Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth, Cognitive Psychology 81 (2015) 48-73. It is not a new topic, but adds to the evidence of our nonlinear shortcomings.
In 1980, Brehmer questioned whether people can learn from experience – more specifically, whether they can learn to make appropriate inferential judgments in probabilistic environments outside the psychological laboratory. His assessment was quite pessimistic. Other scholars have also highlighted difficulties in learning from experience. Klayman, for example, pointed out that in naturally occurring environments, feedback can be scarce, subject to distortion, and biased by lack of appropriate comparative data. Hogarth asked when experience-based judgments are accurate and introduced the concepts of kind and wicked learning environments (see post Learning, Feedback, and Intuition). In kind learning environments, people receive plentiful, accurate feedback on their judgments; but in wicked learning environments they don’t. Thus, Hogarth argued, a kind learning environment is a necessary condition for learning from experience whereas wicked learning environments lead to error. This paper explores the boundary conditions of learning to make inferential judgments from experience in kind environments. Such learning depends on both identifying relevant information and aggregating information appropriately. Moreover, for many tasks in the naturally occurring environment, people have prior beliefs about cues and how they should be aggregated.