The illusion of thinking

I read an interesting interview today, Sean Illing of talking to Prof. Steven Sloman, a psychologist at Brown. Sloman’s on a book tour pitching The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, co-written with Philip Fernbach. It seems bound to be a very worthwhile book and I’ve ordered a copy.

It’s a subject of particular interest to me, having spent a lifetime studying at close hand how people make big, consequential decisions on issues of war, money, and engineering design. Often remarkably bad decisions.

It has long been speculated that humans have two quite different modes of problem-solving mental activity. They go by various names, but one way of putting it is that we can engage in (1) calling up remembered skills, ideas, and facts and threading them together in our amazing associative memory or (2) rational analysis. Any reader of Daniel Kahneman’s marvelous Thinking, Fast and Slow will immediately recognize these as his “system 1” and “system 2,” respectively. As Kahneman explains, the associative thinking of system 1 is very fast and very efficient of energy, while the analytical thinking of system 2 is slower and costs much more energy.

It’s a little amazing that our brains are as big and powerful as they are, for that big, energy-consuming brain was a major burden for our early ancestors, who lived always awfully close to the edge of starvation. Virtually all of our evolutionary history was passed as hunter-gatherers living in tiny bands with very minimal resources, and we can feel sure that the architecture of our minds is almost entirely optimized for survival under such conditions.

This seems to imply a strong inherent tendency to minimize brain energy expenditure, among other things through reliance on the associative system 1, avoiding use of the analytical system 2. Consider a concrete example, driving a car. When you first start driving you have to think about everything you must do and it’s exhausting. You come home from a driving lesson ready to veg out, and you’re liable to make neglectful mistakes in your driving. But once you have learned the necessary repertoire of skills, driving becomes much easier and you can drive to a known location with little conscious thought or mental effort.

We all have an illusion of doing more rational analytical system 2 thinking than we ever do in reality because it’s the kind we’re aware of. It generally takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 milliseconds to become aware of a sensation and because associative system 1 thinking happens faster than this, we are at best only very slightly aware that it is taking place at all. The ideas and solutions that the associative memory presents come to us as revealed and if asked where it came from we cannot give an accurate account. If we are socialized to conceive of ourselves as rational beings we will rationalize them with spurious analyses.

So fast and automatic is associative thinking that it is entirely unavoidable; presented with a problem we will almost always conceive an associative response. In the vast majority of cases these associative system 1 responses are acted upon without any further analysis. And quite a large proportion of us never expend the energy and time to subject our associative responses to analytical scrutiny. Most people have the illusion of rational thinking, but almost never engage in it. And even those with a genuine analytical bent nevertheless rely very largely on associative thinking.

Sloman points out in the interview (and presumably in his book) that some substantial portion of our associative memories are filled with things we have heard and absorbed from other people. This is surely very natural, given that we are (as Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have shown in one of my favorite books) above all a cooperative species. Were it not for the operation of a sort of collective group mind it is unlikely that our ancestors could have survived in a hostile world. And of course it follows from the Bowles-Gintis argument that this tendency will be especially marked in groups involved in conflict, whether commercial, political, or military.

Sloman concludes by saying

My colleagues and I are studying whether one way to open up discourse is to try to change the nature of conversation from a focus on what people value to one about actual consequences. When you talk about actual consequences, you’re forced into the weeds of what’s actually happening, which is a diversion from our normal focus on our feelings and what’s going on in our heads.

It’s a reasonable idea, but I’m not hopeful. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort on attempts at institutional ways to improve deliberation and have found that at least in the kinds of senior decision  groups I have mostly dealt with getting people off their values focus is very difficult and getting them to actually engage consequences issues at all realistically is a great deal more so.


The Russia quagmire

So Donald Trump came to Washington pledged to drain the swamp. Only it’s appearing that the alligator in chief is his good buddy and role model, Vladimir Putin.

This is a story that most Republicans wish desperately would go away. But having been declared enemies of the people by the Republicans, the news media have every conceivable incentive to continue the water torture, drip by drip. One possible way to end it would be to impanel a real investigation, presumably with a special prosecutor. But that would surely seem like cure worse than the disease in the eyes of the Republicans.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Trump stoically enduring the water torture. Surely he will seek to take some action to end it. One course would be to declare the First Amendment obsolete and use the power of the government to attack the media directly, for instance with mass arrests on “Trumped-up” charges. This would presumably be tied in with moves to ensure that all those “illegal voters” (meaning everyone who doesn’t vote Republican) are excluded from the 2018 elections. In other words, a fascist putsch.

I would not put this past Mr. Trump, not for a moment, but I think that some of those around him—and conceivably even he himself—would see such a course as excessively risky. After all, he lacks a hardened and tested corps of Brown-shirts, or Black-shirts, or Blue-shirts whom he can depend upon for the necessary “wet stuff.” He would have to rely on a lot of people in government—people who are not ideologically committed to him and might hesitate to carry out actions that on their face would be seriously illegal. Congressional leaders like Congressman Ryan and Sen. McConnell might be persuaded to try to secure legal cover for a putsch, but it is by no means sure how much support they could count on in Congress, The more imaginative might find it easy to envision outcomes in which they would wind up being hanged from lampposts by outraged mobs, all the more so in the wake of the past few weeks of “town meetings.”

More likely, it seems to me, would be reliance on good old demagoguery, stirring up some desperate threat  so as to take power in the name of protecting the nation from imminent disaster. Mr. Trump would suffer in such an endeavor in having cried “wolf!” a great deal already, leading to a lot of threat fatigue among much of the population.

Of course his friend Mr. Putin might be able to help with this by invading the Baltics, or something. But saving Mr. Trump’s skin is a sideshow from the Kremlin perspective and it’s unlikely that it would seem worth the risks and costs of a direct confrontation. The ideal thing from the White House standpoint would seem to be some naked aggression by Iran, a major push by ISIS, or perhaps a Chinese move. It would need to be pretty genuine because there are a number of people in the Intelligence Community who might well blow the whistle on a fake threat. But with the aid of Mr. Putin and his merry men, and perhaps Mr. Netanyahu, something might arranged.

(I observe that we’ve had manufactured threats in the past for demagogic purposes; need I mention WMDs in Iraq, or the Gulf of Tonkin Incident? Still, the actions these were concocted to justify fell well short of the short of putsch addressed here.)

In any event, I do not look for Mr. Trump and the senior Republicans to walk quietly down to path to an investigation. Stay tuned.


In his book, How Propaganda Works, (see previous post) Prof. Jason Stanley seems to be mostly concerned about propaganda from the press and “establishment” that diverts the attention of the oppressed from how downtrodden they truly are in western liberal democracies such as ours. (It’s all a bit nebulous and I may be getting this wrong, of course, but that’s the impression this old skeptic gets.) He inveighs at length against the promotion of “false ideologies” without ever giving us a clear idea of what qualifies as an ideology, let alone how the false ones are to be distinguished from the others. I cannot believe that this is accidental: he knows perfectly well that the question of distinguishing truth from falsity is one of the enduring central foci of the whole philosophical enterprise.

He notes along the way that liberal democracies are not the only societies subjected to propaganda, that totalitarian societies also have their propaganda. And he notes that demagogues are major emitters of propaganda. He’s not much concerned about totalitarians and only to a limited degree about demagogues—as may have seemed quite reasonable in 2014—but much of what he says that sounds most interesting and relevant in the Age of Trump deals with totalitarian and demagogic propaganda.

Indeed, the closest he comes to letting us know what he means by “flawed ideology” is when he says:
“National Socialist ideology involves a hierarchy of race, an explicit elite group, and the dehumanization of other groups. It is an example of what I will call a flawed ideology. When societies are unjust, for example, in the distribution of wealth, we can expect the emergence of flawed ideologies. The flawed ideologies allow for effective propaganda. In a society that is unjust, due to unjust distinctions between persons, ways of rationalizing undeserved privilege become ossified into rigid and unchangeable belief. These beliefs are the barriers to rational thought and empathy that propaganda exploits.” [Stanley, Jason. How Propaganda Works (Kindle Locations 264-268). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.]

About the clearest his argument ever gets is when he uses Adolph Hitler to demonstrate that speech need not be insincere to be propagandistic. Stanley asserts—very believably, it seems to me—that Hitler’s vile calumnies against the Jews accurately represented his actual vile innermost feelings. Of course when Der Führer said in Mien Kampf,  “Was there any excrement, any shamelessness in any form, above all in cultural life, in which at least one Jew would not have been involved? As soon as one even carefully cut into such an abscess, one found, like maggots in a decaying body, often blinded by the sudden light, a Kike,” he no doubt meant to be taken figuratively regarding the likeness of Jews to Brachycera larvae and employed the simile to excite disgust and revulsion. Yet there is equally no doubt that it was a sense of disgust and revulsion that he himself shared in.

It’s hard to doubt that Mein Kampf is propaganda, but it’s sincere propaganda.

Propaganda — I

I met with some friends on the afternoon of Monday, 27 February, for a discussion of propaganda. We had all read or at least browsed the same book, Stanley, Jason. How propaganda works. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015. The author is a professor of the philosophy of language, epistemology, action theory, and early analytic philosophy. If that sounds to you like a terrific background for understanding propaganda then you might find much interest in the book; I for the most part didn’t.

The author’s problem is that he is much too self-consciously the academic philosopher to make his case clearly and straightforwardly. I studied a fair amount of philosophy but my teachers had turned away from the over-elaborated, obscure style Stanley favors.

His faults not to the contrary, however, Stanley does make some good points on issues that are of even greater importance today than they were when he wrote (which must have been no later than 2014). I’ll take up some of them and their implications in later posts.

And some of what I say will tie into “The Man in the High Castle.”

The Man in the High Castle

It was in 1953, in the summer between 6th and 7th grade, that my family first got a TV. 14 inches, as I recall, black and white of course. It was kind of exciting and I watched it quite a bit for a while. But by the time the summer was over the novelty had worn off. I never watched TV very much after that.

I went to movies. I liked a lot of movies. But movies were different. Mostly movies were a social experience, and my friends/date and I would eat before the show and discuss it after, perhaps playing out some of the roles. But movies didn’t really stimulate my imagination as much as reading for the most part. By the time I went to sea with the Navy in the early 1960s I’d become very selective about movies. We got pretty rotten ones for the most part and my shipmates would kid me about sitting in my stateroom reading while the movie was showing. I was navigator and thus the senior watch officer and sometimes I’d relieve the bridge watch so the OOD could see the film.

My wife, who loves films and is extremely perceptive about them, finds my disinterest a bit frustrating. We do have a regular Friday evening movie night with friends, usually at home watching videos. And lately we have found common ground in watching videos while I exercise on my elliptical trainer.

I’ve never liked exercise per se, never played games. It’s a little unnatural to be exercise-averse and I knew I’d be better off if I exercised, but that didn’t move me all that much. I compensated some by walking a lot, finding reasons to walk rather than ride. But in recent years walking has grown less comfortable.

So I got the elliptical and somewhat to my surprise I’ve managed to establish a fairly regular pattern of three 20 minute sessions per day, at a fairly brisk pace. I miss sometimes, but altogether get in five to six hours of exercise per week.

The videos play an important role in the economy of my exercise. On occasion, when Anne is away, I read rather than watch videos, but watching with her is most pleasant and motivating. The trick of course is to find things we both like,

Somewhat to my surprise, Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” is filling the bill. It’s less psychological and more action oriented than most of the things we watch, and she tends not to care much for SciFi in general, but it seems to work pretty well for both of us.

I think it’s really mostly because of the characters rather than plot per se. What happens to these people is more involving than what happens to this mutation of Philip K. Dick’s dark world.

It’s a bit odd, really. There are an awful lot of glitches and loose ends. That was always one of my problems with Dick’s fiction: his imagination outran his understanding of many aspects of the real world. I often get turned off when films are too far out of synch with reality, but this one doesn’t bother me so much. I suppose a lot of it is that the story is frankly fantastic and doesn’t really pretend to be about the real world.

Terrific performances count for a lot, particularly Rufus Sewell (John Smith) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Nobusuke Tagomi).

A chance of what (for President Trump)?

I have friends, good people, who are distressed that President Trump is not being “given a chance.” We should not be so negative about him they feel, so skeptical.

I am a skeptic by nature, as my father was and as my son is. The credulous, those who instinctively align themselves with authority and power, fill a role in this world, but so do we skeptics. Credulity can bring material benefits, I have often observed, but I cannot change my nature.

My father, skeptic that he was, worked for a number of years as a political newsman. (Newspaperman, as he would say; he never liked the term “journalist.”) Through him, and some other family connections, I early came into contact with political figures. The first whom i recall with any clarity was J. Goodwin “Goodie” Knight, then governor of California. By chance, when I was 16 I passed about three-quarters of an hour with Knight in the guest house at Camp Roberts while we awaited the delayed formal review of the 40th Armored Division, California National Guard. (My godfather, Brig. Gen. Wayne C. Bailey, was the assistant commander of the division.) I did my meager best to hold up my end. I had no quarrel with what I knew of Knight’s policies and he certainly was very nice to me. But as I reported to my father afterward I felt that there was something fake about him. He assured me that there was nothing unusual or unnatural in this.

So I was to find in succeeding encounters over the years. If you think a politician is genuinely interested in you, you are likely wrong. His interest will usually prove largely if not purely transactional. There is nothing wrong or unnatural in this, but if you repose trust in him because you feel that he understands and cares about you, you are very probably making a mistake.

But there are degrees in this, and they are important. While J. Goodwin Knight’s interest in me was no doubt somewhat feigned, I did feel that he cared enough about me and other ordinary Californians (at least white middle-class Californians) not to betray us in any serious way, a judgement borne out by his record. (That he was brought down by the rather reptilian Bill Knowland speaks not too badly of Knight.)

I make judgements of people, and I offer no apologies about it. We are equipped by nature to judge those we come in contact with; it’s one of our important faculties. (Psychologists know it as “theory of mind.”) I try always to review and revise my judgements as I acquire new evidence, but find most frequently that my theory of mind as regards others becomes deeper and more subtle but is not radically transformed in the process.

For one of my disposition, to know Donald J. Trump is to mistrust him. His overbearing, boastful, and brutal style immediately marked him as untrustworthy in my view. As I heard more from him I found that he lied constantly, often in matters where the truth would seem to have served him equally.

Oh, but I am being deceived by the falsehoods of the press, am I not? No, I am not. I no more take the word of the press at face value than I do that of politicians, but I have made a long and reasonably successful career of digging out the facts behind appearances, and time and again have found Trump’s assertions to be radically at variance with facts I could verify independently. Since I read a lot and can do mathematical calculations to check the consistency of data—actions he is evidently not only incapable but contemptuous of—I have a significant advantage over him in this.

So if by giving President Trump a chance it is meant that I should abandon critical thought and surrender to his lies, then the answer is no, I have no intention of doing that. Indeed, I am incapable of it.

And as I see some of my credulous friends do just that my trust and respect for them declines in proportion.

Just another blog

I’m coming very late to the blog scene, but here I am. There’s nothing special about this one, just my thoughts and ideas at random. It’s mostly for me, mostly a medium to organize my thoughts, but if it’s of interest to you I’m very glad to share. I do hope to post pretty frequently, just to reassure myself that I’m still thinking.