Brain Fails

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Our brains are not perfect. They cannot handle the complexity of human life. Our brains of certain heuristics or short cuts to help them get along in the world. These work sometimes, but fail other times. One day I found something Buster Benson wrote called the Cognitive bias cheat sheet. He did a great job of explaining why our brains fail us sometimes.

Every cognitive bias is there for a reason — primarily to save our brains time or energy. If you look at them by the problem they’re trying to solve, it becomes a lot easier to understand why they exist, how they’re useful, and the trade-offs (and resulting mental errors) that they introduce.

Four problems that biases help us address:
  • Information overload (TMI),
  • lack of meaning (intention),
  • the need to act fast (gut feeling), and
  • what to remember (limited memory).

I like this grouping. Our heuristics and cognitive biases help us get over all of these problems. However, there are drawbacks. Our biases lead us astray and let us fall for logical fallacies:

  1. Information overload sucks, so we aggressively filter. Noise becomes signal.
  2. Lack of meaning is confusing, so we fill in the gaps. Signal becomes a story.
  3. Need to act fast lest we lose our chance, so we jump to conclusions. Stories become decisions.
  4. This isn’t getting easier, so we try to remember the important bits. Decisions inform our mental models of the world.

Sounds pretty useful! So what’s the downside?

In addition to the four problems, it would be useful to remember these four truths about how our solutions to these problems have problems of their own:

  1. We don’t see everything. Some of the information we filter out is actually useful and important.
  2. Our search for meaning can conjure illusions. We sometimes imagine details that were filled in by our assumptions, and construct meaning and stories that aren’t really there.
  3. Quick decisions can be seriously flawed. Some of the quick reactions and decisions we jump to are unfair, self-serving, and counter-productive.
  4. Our memory reinforces errors. Some of the stuff we remember for later just makes all of the above systems more biased, and more damaging to our thought processes.