Blog of Sara Jakša

Facts, Thinking, Behavior and Technology

In the last semester, I have done a small theoretical project on the connection between cognitive biases and personality. This did make me read a couple of books that deals with how cognitive biases affect the decision making. The books went from a bit more negative, like the Taleb's Black Swan and Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, to a bit more positive, where cognitive biases are the positive adaptions to the environment, like Bardone's Seeking Chances: From Biased Rationality to Distributed Cognition.

But to look on this, there are at least two interesting frameworks, which could be used. Well, they are a bit connected. One of the is extended cognition, the other is enactivism (I would link to something, but I have yet to find a simple explanation of enactivism).

Extended cognition is an idea, that our thinking and our cognition also takes place outside out our brain and body. The extended cognition would be using the phone to remember phone number or using the friend's list on Facebook to help decide to invite to spend time with or using the pen and paper to help with defining and solving a problem or using a conversation with another person to help clarify ones thinking and discover the holes in it. For example, Bardone wrote, that discussion are important for lessening 'bounded' rationality, as it allows for pooling the capabilities. Which is even better, because we have different strengths and weaknesses.

On the other hand, the enactivism is the coupling of the environment and the agents. In most cases I am using this mental model, the agents are humans. What does this mean is, that humans are co-creating the environment and the environment in return is co-creating the humans. There is a mutual loop there. Yes, it does sound, that they are saying, like there is no objective reality. As far as I understand it, they seem to be quite ambivalent to this question. It is just not accessible to us, because of, among other things, sensory limitations. There is at least some information, that we cannot get out of environment (ultraviolet light), but there might be possible information, that we don't even know about. Which is why objective world is not accessible to us.

I know, that I am not clear. But none of the explanations are better. For example, one explanation from Merleau-Ponty:

The world is inseparable from the subject, but from a subject which is nothing but a project of the world, and the subject is inseparable from the world, but from which the subject itself projects.

The important point is the co-dependence of the environment and our cognition. Which is where technology comes in. Technology, for better or worse, changed our thinking. For example, we humans are created to use social clues to make decision. One of the rules that we use, to decide what to trust, is using argumetum ad verecudiam, which basically means that people believe facts, stories and other things because of the authority.

But with the today's technology, we started using this rule for inanimate objects as well. It means that we can end up structuring our thinking in terms of search or it can eventually shape what we know and see about the world. Which is alright, if what is needed is quickly discovering answers to specific factual questions, but not if the question is more like: What do I do with this?.

For creative endeavors, like the upper question, the networks of people are still better than Google. Especially, because for being creative, there needs to first be a foundation of knowledge accessible (Greek muses were thought to be the daughters of Mnemosyne, who was the personification of memory. So even Greek already saw the connection between the facts collected and creativity). But technology can affect how we remember something. The problem is also, that Google (almost) newer says 'I don't know', and even when it does, we don't get the feeling, like it is its fault. It feels, like it would show something, if we would know what to enter in the search box. But this can be a problem, because it integrates in out cognition, that not-knowing is not something, that we should experience all the time, which can reduce the motivation to go deeper is some subject. Because of that, we miss on a lot of potential connection between ideas.

There are also other examples. One example, that I see a lot, is in public speaking. I am sure the public speaking changed with the invention of slides. The slides give the impression that the speeches are a lot more structured and it discouraged any kind of deviation from the plan, or the creativity on the stage. It does not even create a good relationship to the audience, because there is only the interaction, when the slides allow for it. And while I did not see any study or collect enough data yet, but my intuition tells me, that people are a lot less likely to ask question during the speech, when there are slides there.

One another example is the use of excel for data analysis. Excel allowed, possibly for the first time in history, to have numerical data analysis available to most people, regardless of knowledge they had. Taleb calls this the phenomena, where we had become the worse planner than in the Soviet Russians. That is because everybody can put some numbers there, and the spreadsheets will output some sort of answer in most cases. Regardless if the analysis makes sense or not.

But just like putting the fMRI images in the article, makes them appear more scientific, or putting a male name leads to the higher job offers, the same way the statistical graphs and tables can also make the message more completing, even if it is, at least in some cases, less understandable.

In this way, the idea of extended cognition and enactivism are important. They provide the framework to understand it. Why we can look to be a bit less creative, as we are using the things, which have unintended consequences to makes us think more in way of the search, than in a way of connecting ideas (enactivism). Also, there are not a lot of technologies, that one can use to become more creative (extended cognition) – except the pen and paper, but this was already present in Ancient Egypt, so I am not counting this as technology. On the other hand, we are changing our brain by googling things as soon as we miss a single fact, which makes us more likely to have the necessary facts when needed (extended cognition), but because of this our memory changes as well (enactivism).

We are not information processing machines like the computers. Out black box algorithms get changed all the time by technology, which changes our behaviors (outputs) as well (enactivism). And we are using the add-ons in the real world as helping subroutines (extended cognition). So, it is important, which and how do we use our technology.