Neuroscientist Challenges our Views of Humanity

Today’s post comes to us from board member David Creelman.

Most of the press on neuroscience has been around the weaknesses in human decision-making. This is interesting though not especially worrying;most of us have grown up well-aware of the frailties of human intelligence. The main reason neuroscience’s findings about poor decision-making seemed surprising was that economists had built the entire field on the simplifying assumption that humans were perfectly rational. Economists needed that assumption to make the math work—then they seemed to forget it was a simplifying assumption and were stunned to discover humans were irrational.

A new book by Nick Chater, The Mind is Flat, is much more disturbing. He points to the science suggesting that we do not have a deep unconscious mind that might be considered the “true” self. Instead, we invent the self, moment by moment, just as Netflix calculates what movies you will like in the moment rather than relying on some subconscious Netflix “self” that dredges up suggestions based on its innermost feelings about you.

We typically believe it’s a good idea to put an idea aside for a time so that our unconscious brains can mull it over. Chater points to evidence that this simply doesn’t happen, the brain does not do any mulling in the background; that we feel sure that it is doing so is simply an illusion. It does help to step back from a problem for a moment and then go back at it afresh, but it doesn’t help to give the brain a few hours or days to ponder—the brain isn’t doing that, it only works in real time, it doesn’t do background processing.

Earlier books on neuroscience would have led you to believe that humans are bad at statistics which is why our preferences appear to be inconsistent. Chater argues that the inconsistency is because we do not have inner preferences sitting in our unconscious mind. Instead, we make decisions as to what we want (e.g. a trip to Paris vs. a trip to Rome) in the moment rather than referring to inner preferences.

The book leaves a lot of unanswered questions. In particular, it often begs the question of, if we are not making our decisions based on inner preferences, then what are we making them on? However, I suspect Chater’s view is true in some important ways. It’s a view that implies human behavior is less consistent than we might expect and more driven by the moment than by inner personality. This will inevitably challenge our beliefs on how to select and motivate employees.

I’ll be looking into this further, so keep in touch.

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