David Brooks seems to be a fascination of mine. The New York Times columnist surprises me both in positive and negative ways. I only mention it when the surprise is negative. Below is an excerpt from his November 25, 2016, column.
And this is my problem with the cognitive sciences and the advice world generally. It’s built on the premise that we are chess masters who make decisions, for good or ill. But when it comes to the really major things we mostly follow our noses. What seems interesting, beautiful, curious and addicting?
Have you ever known anybody to turn away from anything they found compulsively engaging?
We don’t decide about life; we’re captured by life. In the major spheres, decision-making, when it happens at all, is downstream from curiosity and engagement. If we really want to understand and shape behavior, maybe we should look less at decision-making and more at curiosity. Why are you interested in the things you are interested in? Why are some people zealously seized, manically attentive and compulsively engaged?
Now that we know a bit more about decision-making, maybe the next frontier is desire. Maybe the next Kahneman and Tversky will help us understand what explains, fires and orders our loves.
I can imagine his frustration with the advice world and maybe with Kahneman and Tversky (see post Prospect Theory), but it appears that Brooks is only looking at the advice world. Brooks would benefit by looking at the work of Ken Hammond. The post Cognitive Continuum examines some of Hammond’s 1980 work. Hammond has those chess masters to whom Brooks refers as one extreme of the cognitive continuum. The post Intuition in J-DM looks at the work of Tilmann Betsch and Andreas Glockner in what is called Parallel Constraint Satisfaction theory.
Betsch and Glockner believe that information integration and output formation (choice, preference) is intuitive. Analysis involves directed search (looking for valid cues or asking an expert for advice), making sense of information, anticipating future events, etc. Thus, they see a judgment as a collaboration of intuition and analysis. The depth of analysis varies, but intuition is always working so preferences are formed even without intention. Limiting processing time and capacity constrains only input. Thus, once information is in the system, intuition will use that information irrespective of amount and capacity.
Curiosity might be considered the degree of dissonance we encounter in our automatic decision making that in effect tells us to analyze–find more information and examine it. We do mostly follow our noses, because it is adaptive. But it is also adaptive to be able to recognize change that is persistent and must be responded to. A parameter of the parallel constraint satisfaction model is the individual sensitivity to differences between cue validities. This implies that individuals respond differently to changing cue validities. Some change quickly when they perceive differences and others change at a glacial pace.
The post Rationality Defined Again: RUN & JUMP looks at the work of Tilmann Betsch and Carsten Held. Brooks in his opinion piece seems to be suggesting that analytic processing is pretty worthless. Betsch and Held have seen this before. They note that research on non-analytic processing has led some authors to conclude that intuition is superior to analysis or to at least promote it as such with the obvious example being Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. Such a notion, however, neglects the important role of decision context. The advantages and disadvantages of the different types of thought depend on the nature of the task. Moreover, the plea for a general superiority of intuition neglects the fact that analysis is capable of things that intuition is not. Consider, for example, the case of routine maintenance and deviation decisions. Routine decisions will lead to good results if prior experiences are representative for the task at hand. In a changing world, however, routines can become obsolete.
In the absence of analytic thought, adapting to changing contexts requires slow, repetitive learning. Upon encountering repeated failure, the individual’s behavioral tendencies will change. The virtue of deliberate analysis, Brooks’ chess mastering, lies in its power to quickly adapt to new situations without necessitating slow reinforcement learning. Whereas intuition is fast and holistic due to parallel processing, it is a slave to the pre-formed structure of knowledge as well as the representation of the decision problem. The relations among goals, situations, options and outcomes that result from prior knowledge provide the structural constraints under which intuitive processes operate. They can work very efficiently but, nevertheless, cannot change these constraint. The potential of analytic thought dwells in the power to change the structure of the representation of a decision problem.
I believe that Brooks realizes that analytic thought is one thing that distinguishes us from other creatures even though it does not seem to inform much of our decision making. The post Embodied(Grounded) prediction(cognition might also open a window for Brooks.