Monday, February 13, 2012

Making Choices with Incomplete Information

Jen Hancock, the Happy Humanist, has a great post on her blog about critical thinking called "How Being Less Wrong is Actually Right".  She describes how human knowledge is more a process of becoming less wrong than acquiring a sort of Holy Grail of Truth. To illustrate her point, Jen cites Asimov's description of the evolving view of the globe - from flat to round, small to big, and perfectly spherical to bulging in the middle.

This got me thinking about what I said in my post about Darwin Day and the errors of Social Darwinism, "It's not what you know that matters, it's how you approach that knowledge."  In a perfect world, we could approach all knowledge as if it existed in isolation from the rest of existence.  We could leave it undisturbed behind a velvet rope and occasionally come view it as it expands and shifts with each new experiment.  Each bit of new information could be a new facet on the surface of a perfect jewel, exposing the clarity and color previously hidden in the dull, hard stone of our initial observations.

In reality, we can't wall our knowledge off in a safe, sterile area.  Rather, each piece of knowledge is a tool that we must use each day or month or decade regardless of whether we're ready or not - whether we're confident in its accuracy or not.  Each decision we make is based upon the knowledge we have up to that point.  So here's my question: How do we factor the shifting uncertainty of each bit of knowledge into our decision making process?  Do we have conscious or unconscious processes for this?  If so, are these processes similar for everyone?  Beyond the question of how we weigh our own confidence in the information we have, what increases or decreases that confidence for different people?

My wife gave me a book by Jonah Lehrer called How We Decide that addresses some of these questions.  I've not finished the book yet, but so far my understanding of Lehrer's argument is that the decision making process is heavily influenced by a "good" or "bad" feeling we get that stems from dopamine production or transfer in the brain - often without our being aware of it.  The idea here being that, after each action, we experience a positive or negative emotion and that our brain basically begins to bypass conscious thought in familiar situations in favor of  generalizing the experiences we've had before.  This generally works out well for us.  Big scary lion teeth give us a fright because we've seen or heard of how dangerous they are.  By reacting emotionally, rather than critically, we're more likely to react quickly and evade the lion.  On the other hand, this type of decision making can be counter productive in new situations.  For example, we may not recognize a new danger if is doesn't resemble something associated with a negative emotion or we may not recognize a new opportunity if it does elicit a negative emotion.

Given all that, it seems that the trick is to be prepared in advance to respond to different types of situations differently.  In other words, we have to determine whether the situation requires a novel, considered, critical approach or an instant fight-or-flight type approach.  Either way, I'm excited about picking Lehrer's book up again to see what else he has to say.  When I'm done, I'll review it here.

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