March 04, 2012
Emotions Sometimes Better At Predictions?

An excellent book by Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking, Fast And Slow has brought into mainstream discussion the insights that psychological researchers have developed about the automated subconscious mind (called system 1 in Kahnemann's book) versus the rational conscious mind (system 2). We make a lot of mistakes by relying on the (rather flawed) heuristics that system 1 uses to very rapidly reach conclusions about problems the mind tries to solve. We could perform more effectively if we could better identify when we should put system 2 to work and if we could become more aware of when system 1 is basically planting ideas that system 2 incorrectly decides to accept.

But we do not have the mental capacity to solve all problems using system 2. We train our minds to apply techniques automatically (e.g. you don't pay that much attention to tying your shoe laces). We basically drill in skills to allow us to do things below the level of the conscious mind and use habits (and that link refers to Charles Duhigg's new book The Power Of Habit which is also on my Kindle waiting to be read). Our many habits help us to lighten our cognitive load so the conscious mind can (hopefully) focus mainly on what it is most needed for.

Turns out, there's some evidence that for some types of guess work system 1 actually does a better job than system 2 in trying to predict what will happen.

The latest demonstration of this effect comes from the lab of Michael Pham at Columbia Business School. The study involved asking undergraduates to make predictions about eight different outcomes, from the Democratic presidential primary of 2008 to the finalists of American Idol. They forecast the Dow Jones and picked the winner of the BCS championship game. They even made predictions about the weather.

Here’s the strange part: although these predictions concerned a vast range of events, the results were consistent across every trial: people who were more likely to trust their feelings were also more likely to accurately predict the outcome.

When to trust your intuition? Click thru and read the details on that. It is a very important question. A related question: How to train yourself so your emotions provide better quality signals on what to do?

Habits seem pretty similar to system 1 but maybe not always the same thing. Or, rather, system 1 might be many subsystems. Some of them might implement habits. When to use habits? What habits to develop? Which techniques to learn to enable system 2 to catch and correct system 1's bigger mistakes? These are the topics of cognitive research that I've become interested in. Given that our minds are flawed and yet also that they have limited capacity how to develop our minds to compensate for our flaws and at the same time make more effective use of the faster system 1 cognitive machinery?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 March 04 03:36 PM  Brain Cognitive Flaws

PacRim Jim said at March 4, 2012 7:00 PM:

With, as I recall, about 150 distinct interacting components in the human brain, I would be surprised if there weren't other subconscious shenanigans at work keeping our sorry behinds out of sundry fires incompatible with survival.

Phillep Harding said at March 5, 2012 12:38 PM:

Odd. I noticed that if I was able to attain a zen state while playing freecell I did not even need to pause to see what was where. Likewise with jigsaw puzzles. (Not, note: NOT minefield.) No intellect in playing like this, and no emotions, either. There's something else going on, I've heard too many people talking about being "in the groove".

hamerhokie said at March 5, 2012 2:25 PM:

Highly recommend "The Second Brain," which explores the function of the enteric nervous system and its role in our 'gut' intuition. This is distinguishable from our 'conceptual' intuition, which is associated with right-brain function.

ChrisD said at March 6, 2012 11:31 AM:

This makes total sense and is not really new. System 1 (roughly, the subcortical areas and basal ganglia) has often been shown to be better at probabilistic predictions involving cues too complex to easily verbalize. This is why parkinson's (basal ganglia dopamine deficiencies) can diagnosed with a weather prediction task. People are better at learning complex rules and outcomes through the sub-cortical BG route.

a_coward said at March 6, 2012 11:37 AM:

I can believe this. I learned at some point to make predictions about highly complex systems from intuition, and when I can get them they are much more reliable than prediction by analysis. The trick (for me, at least) was to learn to differentiate emotions (mostly fear and hope) from intuition. Hope and fear are utterly unreliable at prediction. Intuition is very good. The other snag is that "when I can get them" clause. If the intuition doesn't offer up a prediction, I can't force it to happen. At that point, analysis is the remaining useful tool.

RebeccaH said at March 6, 2012 2:18 PM:

We used to call this "going with your gut".

teapartydoc said at March 6, 2012 5:57 PM:

Nothing new here. Look up De Docta Ignoranta by Nicolas of Cusa.

Rief said at March 7, 2012 1:55 AM:

It's not really a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but it's good to build up the science of understanding why our non-conscious cognition is oftentimes better than our conscious cognition. It's frustrating (but worth knowing) that our conscious understanding of complex topics is incomplete and slow, where our unconscious perceives and processes things much faster and is much better at doing certain tasks. I certainly have learned to favor my intuitive knowledge on certain topics (e.g. reading people and social situations) rather than letting my conscious observations mislead me.

Tom said at March 7, 2012 5:03 AM:

Nice indeed. Hip Hop Online

Phillep Harding said at March 13, 2012 2:44 PM:

Thought it over a bit. This is like the training martial artists undergo, to react without thought so they don't get the snot kicked out of them. We can get trained in loads of other subjects, to react instead of think, to know when to close a sale, to know when someone is lying, to sidestep dog doo on the sidewalk or dodge a panhandler, or...?

Emotions have nothing to do with it.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©