Philosophy 20 - 2.1.2 The Evolutionary Advantage of Shortcuts

Human beings have evolved to navigate the world most effectively and efficiently by engaging conscious awareness only when necessary. For that reason, you can walk through the grocery store while thinking about what you are going to cook for dinner. You do not have to consciously think about where to go, how to slow down to make way for other people, or how hard to push the shopping cart so that it maintains momentum in front of you even as its weight changes as you add groceries to the basket. All that biomechanical activity can be outsourced to unconscious mechanisms as you scan your shopping list. The brain is quite good at engaging in habitual activities without the assistance of conscious thought. And that is a good thing because conscious thought is expensive in energy terms. Consider the picture that follows.

A standing woman looks pensively into the distance.
Figure 2.4 Many inferences can be made about this woman’s inner experience based on her expression and posture. While such inferences can be made quickly, they cannot be verified without further investigation, and they are highly susceptible to error, bias, and stereotyping. (credit: “CL Society 226: Woman with mobile phone” by Francisco Osorio/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

You are probably immediately able to provide complex inferences about this picture, such as the woman is worried, concerned, or anxious about something. The inferences you make about this image are easy, fast, and complex. They are driven by the kind of emotional and conceptual thought processes that are unconscious and efficient. While these inferences are quick and easy, you may also be aware that they are provisional without more information. Given more data about the circumstances surrounding this picture, you might revise your perception about what is going on. This is exactly the sort of thinking that drives the emotional projections discussed in the previous section.

A different type of thinking is required to solve a math problem. The following example comes from psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow (2013). Try to solve the following in your head:

24 × 14 =

Do you know the answer? For most people, multiplying two-digit numbers without pen and paper (or a calculator) is quite difficult. You might need perhaps 10 or 20 seconds of effortful thinking to solve the problem in your head since you do not have the unconscious mechanisms to do so automatically. Long-term social and evolutionary pressures have shaped our brains to find efficient solutions to complex questions about facial expressions. The same cannot be said for math problems. Knowing the solution to a math problem may be useful, but it is not the sort of thing generally required for survival and reproduction. On the other hand, quickly reading other people’s emotions is at times vital for survival. There are other interesting differences between these two kinds of thinking. While it is difficult to solve the math problem, once you solve it, you can be 100 percent certain the answer is correct. By contrast, it is easy to generate a story about facial expressions, but this story is highly susceptible to error, bias, and stereotyping. As a result, critical thinkers should be careful not to jump to the first, most obvious solution.

Energy Demands on Deliberate Thinking

Solving a math problem requires rational thought and effort. When we engage in rational thought, our brains use up precious energy stores that may be required for the maintenance of the body. Because evolutionary pressures seek to keep us alive long enough to pass our genes to the next generation, we have a biological tendency to avoid effortful thinking. In a sense, it is evolutionarily wise to be lazy.

The resources demanded by conscious thought can be understood in terms of the familiar notion of “attention.” When a task requires significant attention, it places increased energy demands on the brain. Periods of high-attention activity can be stressful, as the body increases blood flow to the brain, delivering more glucose and oxygen for increased mental activity. Additionally, attention is limited and focused on specific tasks. Consider the “selective attention test” developed by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. Watch the video below and see how you perform on this test.


Selective Attention Test

How many passes did you count? Did you miss anything in the process? When our attention is focused on a novel and complex task, we become less aware of other stimuli outside the specific area of focus. Additionally, we may become fatigued, stressed, or anxious while engaged in paying close attention. Not surprisingly, our brains prefer automated shortcuts.

Heuristics and Learning

Kahneman (2013) calls these mental shortcuts heuristics, or rules of thumb for drawing inferences. Problem-solving with heuristics is largely unconscious, automated, effortless, and efficient, but it is not always correct. Rational thinking or computation requires conscious attention and effort and may not even be possible without some practice. We are forced to engage in effortful thinking when confronted with something new and possibly dangerous—or even with something slightly outside of our normal routine. For example, you have probably driven home from work or school along a familiar route on “autopilot,” preoccupied with your thoughts. Maybe you have even gotten home and felt as if you cannot remember how you got there. By contrast, you have probably experienced the stress of navigating a new, unfamiliar city. In the first case, navigation can be carried out using easy, largely automatic processing, whereas in the second case, navigation requires the intense resources of active attention and rational calculation.

Sometimes complex activities can become effortless, but unlike when we are on “automatic pilot,” such activities feel pleasant and fulfilling. When you become fully immersed in a complex activity to the point at which it becomes effortless, you have entered the state of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 2008).

Flow states are possible only for someone who has achieved some level of proficiency at a task. They are characterized by intense concentration and awareness as well as a sense of personal control or agency, but they are pleasurable because the challenge of engaging in the task is commensurate with your ability. By contrast, a novice may find the same tasks stressful and frustrating. This phenomenon can be illustrated using the notion of the “learning curve” that describes how a novice grows in proficiency.

What this means is that a person may be able to rely on intuitions, gut reactions, and other automatic responses in a field in which they are an expert, but the novice should be skeptical of these methods of thinking. As a novice, your mental heuristics are frequently faulty, so you are susceptible to prejudice, implicit bias, and error.

Consider the case of buying a car. Someone who is deeply familiar with the automobile market as either a buyer or a seller may be able to estimate the true value of a car easily, but the average person would need to do a great deal of research to arrive at a true estimate. Because of the effort required for nonexperts to appraise car value, they are easily influenced by dealer incentives, marked-up list prices, financing options, and other tricks of the trade. Given that we are all susceptible to these types of errors, it seems like a good idea to try to become more self-aware and critical and not rely exclusively on gut reactions or intuitions when encountering new material. Since you are probably a novice in philosophy if you are reading this textbook, you ought to be suspicious of your gut reactions to and intuitions about philosophical questions. Keep an open mind, and don’t assume you already understand the philosophical problems you will encounter in the chapters that follow. Being open to new ideas and allowing yourself to admit some degree of ignorance are important first steps in becoming a better thinker.

Heuristics and Substitution in Decision-Making

The cognitive biases that we will examine in the next section are based on a more fundamental “substitution heuristic.” This term describes our tendency to answer a difficult question or problem by substituting it with an easier question to answer. While substitution often results in an incorrect or inappropriate response, it gives us a sense of satisfaction or “cognitive ease” in thinking we have solved a problem. For instance, when you are asked to evaluate something complex and uncertain, like the future value of an investment or the political prospects of a politician, you are likely to substitute that complex calculation for an easier one. In particular, you may substitute your positive or negative feelings toward the politician or the investment product. But your feelings are likely to be guided by your preconceptions.

When the brain defaults to heuristics that produce a less-than-optimal result or even an incorrect decision, it is operating with a cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is a pattern of “quick” thinking based on the “rule of thumb.” A person operating under a cognitive bias does not use logic or careful reasoning to arrive at a conclusion. Cognitive biases are like perceptual illusions. Just like perceptual illusions, cognitive biases are the result of the natural and, ordinarily, efficient operation of the brain. Even though mental heuristics often work perfectly well to help give us an estimation of reality without the mental effort required to generate a more comprehensive picture, cognitive biases are the result of misleading and faulty patterns that arise from this process.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax