A couple people recommended that I look at Chris Nelder's Storytelling our energy future (smartplanet, May 30, 2012) after I published about human irrationality this past week. They thought, and rightly so, that Nelder's report on psychologist Daniel Kahneman's work (via Andrew Revkin's New York Times blog) strongly supports my view that humans are not rational problem solvers. Here's a summary from Nelder.
How we think
How we come to believe what we think we know is a key question for those who would guide the future of energy, the climate, and the many other challenges that now face humanity.
It turns out that how we think isn’t quite as rational as we might believe.
Behavioral scientist Daniel Kahneman has an excellent lecture on this subject, which was highlighted last week on Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog. Drawing on the body of scientific research on how we think, Kahneman breaks down our thinking processes into two systems.
What he calls System 1 is how most of us operate most of the time. It’s automatic, and draws extensively and effortlessly on associative memory. It’s what you use when driving a car. It’s what your mind does when you hear “two plus two.” It’s what draws up a wealth of images invoked by “your mother.” It’s intuitive, instinctive, and immediate, and it biases what you perceive toward what you already think you know in order to produce stories that “make sense.” We trust System 1 because it’s fast and efficient and mostly correct. With System 1, the conclusions come first, and then the arguments.
The other way of thinking he calls System 2. It’s what your brain does when you hear “17 times 24.” It’s characterized by deliberate, analytical work. It’s what controls your behavior when you have to make a left turn into traffic, or read a map, or fill out an income tax form. It’s a logical, sequential way of thinking, which is related to control, attention, and rule-governed behavior.
What research has found is that people generally operate by System 1. It comes up with associations which act as suggestions, which are mostly endorsed by System 2. If your life depends on getting the answer to a question right, Kahneman says, then your System 2 will kick in to double-check what System 1 offers, and possibly correct it. But if your life doesn’t depend on it, you’ll usually go with the suggestions of System 1.
“What we have is a storytelling system, and the coherence of the stories determines how much faith we have in them,” Kahneman observes. “The coherence is associative and emotional. It involves concrete events. You have to assume that System 1 is largely indifferent to the quality and amount of evidence; it is bound more by the coherence of the story than by the evidence behind it.”
You should read Nelder's excellent article and watch the Kahneman lecture at Dot Earth if you want the whole "story". I simply want to make a few remarks on this mostly accurate view of typical human cognition.
I never talk in terms of "stories" on this blog, other than to refer to news stories, which are not quite the same thing. Why not? My preferred approach is talk in terms of acknowledging various realities versus the pie-in-the-sky fantasies people usually cling to. And since no one can know completely what Ultimate Reality is, I talk in terms of what is very likely to be true as opposed to what are very likely delusional beliefs.
My observations of human beings—not my belief about them—tells me that they overwhelmingly prefer happy, optimistic fantasies (especially regarding the future) instead of grim, in-your-face realities. You can often spot these realities in ongoing trends like income inequality in America or overfishing of the world's oceans. Often I try to predict the future by extrapolating these trends, and base their likely continuation on my knowledge of how human beings actually seem to work. In short, there is no good reason to think those deleterious trends will be reversed.
I spend a lot of time on DOTE talking about reality versus fantasy so you too will learn to see how people typically "think" about the Big Issues. It turns out they don't think much at all (i.e. don't engage in rational thought, Kahneman's System 1). Fundamentally, human beings were designed by nature for Faith & Belief, not for rational thought (System 2). I've known that for years and years now because if you actually look as objectively as possible at what goes on in this world, which is what I have tried to do, that's what you see over and over again.
However, the word "story" is neutral, and therefore calling a narrative "a story" effectively divorces it from whatever truth it might contain. Here's a good-enough definition in the intended sense.
An account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious, as:
a. An account or report regarding the facts of an event or group of events: "the witness changed her story under questioning."
b. An anecdote: "came back from the trip with some good stories."
c. A lie: "told us a story about the dog eating the cookies."
The whole point of science, which led to human "subjugation" of the natural world as a desired side-effect, and whole point of data-based analysis of current and historical events, was to contruct narratives (called "theories") which were based in fact & observation, and subject to change based on new evidence. A good theory should be falsifiable, i.e. subject to testing. Otherwise, it is merely a story which may be true or fictitious (see below). The whole point was for some humans to stop telling such stories about how the world works, about events and about each other. Such stories don't need to be grounded in anything. They can be fabricated from whole cloth, and often are.
Right up until the 16th century, all humans had been telling each other stories, often self-justifying, self-serving stories, for tens of thousands of years. Surely it comes as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of people still do that. Economists tell stories. Politicians tell stories. Your neighbors tell stories. Conspiracy theorists tell stories. That guy on the stool next to you at the bar tells stories. Investors tell stories on CNBC. Liberals tells stories. Conservatives tell stories. Oil industry executives tell stories. Environmentalists tell stories. The writers at Salon tell stories. That's what people do!
It doesn't matter that often times some small part of those stories are grounded in reality, that they are partially based in observation & analysis. I assume you've heard the phrase a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or that some story contains a grain of truth. Now you know what those adages mean. Even what appears to be total bullshit is often not complete bullshit. Some small part of the narrative is true, and that's what makes the bullshit seem plausible. The rest is typical human spin. That's why humans are so frustrating to deal with. You could spend your whole life trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in typical human stories.
So, that's why I hardly ever use the word "story" to describe the things people say or the "analyses" they offer. What they say is either substantially based in what is known or it is not, and we can tell the difference if we are familiar with what is known. And thanks to science, data-based analyses in general and historical experience, we do indeed know things.
In cases of obvious bullshit, which is everywhere of course, I'll talk in terms of delusional fantasies, or obligatory hope or unwarranted optimism or just plain nonsense. As I said, people are built for Faith & Belief, not rational thought. As Nelder's essay touches on, the stories humans tell are almost invariably based in emotional responses and group dynamics. And this is only one side of the coin, for as Nelder discusses, what people are willing to believe is also based on these factors and assorted other cognitive processes (e.g. the classic psychological defense mechanisms like denial or compartmentalization). See my posts The Optimist's Brain and Ignorance Is Bliss. Most of the interesting stuff with humans takes place outside of awareness. You might also read my post The Kingdom Of The Blind.
For example, emotional ties and shared beliefs are the cement which holds human groups together, i.e. beyond the obvious social ties, shared beliefs promote group coherence, which is often more important for humans than anything outside personal survival. It is only important that the beliefs are shared. It doesn't matter so much what those beliefs actually are. That's politics in a nutshell, and that's why I say politics makes you stupid. In fact, being a group member in good standing was tantamount to personal survival for tens of thousands of years. You could not survive outside the group.
As to the question of human rationality, I have for many years considered that question closed. If you are still laboring under the delusion that humans are in the general case rational decision-makers, or problem-solvers, or, in Kahneman's terms, System 2 thinkers, you need to take a long, hard look at the story you're telling yourself because it is quite obviously wrong and you are living in a fantasy world.